Fest is betting on niche shifts

New landscape in Park City

Considering the storm of changes at studio specialty arms in recent months, the hunger for acquisitions at the Sundance fest, which opens today in Park City, Utah, should be evident.

This edition of Sundance is the first for Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s new venture, just as it’s the first for the reconfigured Miramax they left behind at Disney, now run by Daniel Battsek.

Veteran indie agent John Lesher also will make his Sundance debut as the new head of Paramount Classics, along with his just-installed No. 2, former Miramax acquisitions exec Amy Israel.

It’s also the first time out for Bob Berney’s Picturehouse. And Fox Searchlight prexy Peter Rice will be keeping his eye on films for his unit’s new genre imprint, although his chief attention will be on acquisitions for Searchlight.

There’s nowhere like Sundance to make a splashy buy, particularly in an awards season dominated by niche pics, including such past fest pickups as “Crash,” “Transamerica,” “The Squid and the Whale” and foreign-language film “Paradise Now.”

And Sundance organizers’ pledge to return to the event’s roots by tapping smaller, more indie-flavored fare has drawn attention, although there’s still a small crop of star-studded titles. It’s given bigger buyers a reason to play coy and feign ambivalence — at least publicly.

Either way, behind the scenes, everybody’s already bundling up and hitting the initial flurry of screenings.

“A lot of companies are looking to fill their slates, so there will be a lot of aggressive, hungry distributors hoping for great films,” Weinstein Co. acquisitions exec Michelle Krumm said. “There are a lot of films we are anxious to see that we have been tracking for some time.”

As for the changed roster of players, “I think there’s obviously a lot of well-financed companies now in this space that I assume will be competing for some of the same product,” Rice said. “I personally love Sundance because it’s the one place where you get to sit down and watch a movie and not really know what to expect.”

Paramount Classics says it’s not desperate for films and that it’s got a stable of projects in the works — a common refrain among all the specialty arms, who don’t want to show their hand to sellers.

Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics, Warner Independent Pictures and indie studio Lionsgate will hit Sundance just as eagerly as the rest. It was at last year’s fest that Warner Independent and National Geographic Films picked up “March of the Penguins” for a mere $1 million. Film went on to gross more than $77 million in the U.S.

“Inevitably, it will be busy. It’s just a question of how much money will be spent,” one top studio acquisitions exec said. “Will it be at the $5 million-$7 million level or the $1 million-$3 million level?”

Industryites speculate that Lesher, who’s suddenly a seller-turned-buyer, will want to make some sort of mark. Last year, Par Classics made headlines when newly installed Viacom CEO Tom Freston engineered the purchase of “Hustle & Flow” at Sundance for a hefty $8 million.

“My sense is that there will be a lot of deals,” said Berney. “I don’t know about bidding wars. With all the distributors and all the new players, even the small, obscure films might have a chance. There’s always room if you fall in love with something.”

Titles that could set off bidding wars include “Little Miss Sunshine,” starring Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Alan Arkin; “The Darwin Awards,” starring Joseph Fiennes, Winona Ryder, David Arquette and Juliette Lewis; “The Night Listener,” starring Robin Williams, Toni Collette and Sandra Oh; and “The Illusionist,” starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti.

While some specialty arms have already seen “The Illusionist,” sellers for other titles have kept a lockdown on screeners; a few years ago, everyone saw almost everything before they even arrived in Park City.

“Overhyping films is something I am always concerned about,” said John Sloss, whose Cinetic Media is repping a slate that includes buzz pics “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Stephanie Daley.” “And there is no palpable reason, or real benefit, for overhyping a film. You can wind up with ‘Donnie Darko’ complex — a film that’s so overhyped, people are disappointed and cannot put it in context,” he added.

“It’s all hearsay until it happens,” as William Morris Independent co-head Rena Ronson put it. “There’s nothing like seeing the film with an audience at Sundance.”

Two years ago, Cinetic kept its “Napoleon Dynamite” flying way under the radar until it screened at Sundance. The $400,000 pic wound up with an acquisition deal worth nearly $4.5 million from Fox Searchlight.

Sundance hardly belongs to the studio specialty arms. There are any number of indie film companies that will be culling the festival lineup, including Roadside Attractions, Samuel Goldwyn Films, IFC Films and relative newcomer Bauer Martinez.

“I can’t remember a Sundance that wasn’t busy,” Rice said. “Every year people go in saying it’s not going to be good. Then things which have never been seen before break.”

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