Pic avalanche gives cold comfort

Fewer commercial prospects have agents, distribs jostling for talent

They arrive in Park City with a sales rep, a publicist and a dream — a studio deal, the recognition of their peers, a box office success like “Napoleon Dynamite” or “March of the Penguins.”

But this year’s crop of Sundance directors are being told to rein in their expectations. They’re competing on a playing field that’s never been so cluttered — 48 of the 118 features are by first-time helmers.

And though the ranks of buyers have swollen — with a revved-up Paramount Classics and the Weinstein Co. joining the hunt — a distribution deal still may be a long shot.

Take the case of “Police Beat,” directed by Robinson Devor, which appeared out of nowhere at last year’s Sundance and was rumored to be a favorite of fest topper Geoff Gilmore. Its producers were besieged by calls from sales reps wanting it.

This year, “Police Beat” wound up at the Gotham Awards as the best film never to get distribution.

“The Puffy Chair,” described by Daily Variety as a “smart and painfully funny debut feature by filmmaker brothers Jay and Mark Duplass,” was another buzz pic that failed to gain traction.

Acquisitions execs always downplay expectations before Sundance. But this year, they say they are even more wary. They were disappointed in the commercial potential of lineups at Cannes, Toronto and the American Film Market.

And there haven’t been any major fest pre-buys, as there were last year, when Dimension swooped in and took “Wolf Creek” off the market before rival distribs had time to screen it.

“Toronto was disappointing from an acquisition perspective, at least for us, so I am looking at Sundance to round out our ’06 slate with another ‘March of the Penguins’ or ‘Garden State’ — that is, a great film with commercial potential,” said Warner Independent Pictures’ Paul Federbush.

“I’m sure there will be great films this year, but I’m having doubts about their commercial potential,” he added.

When Sundance’s Gilmore announced the fest is “going back to its roots,” with less of the glitz and glamour of previous years and more “new voices,” the reaction emanating from studio specialty labels that need product was palpable, even while execs applaud the fest’s intentions.

Even if penguins were the stars of last year’s great Sundance discovery, specialty distribs still want “name talent” and “commercial upside.”

Gilmore says he and his staff picked more films that came in over the transom this time — rather than pics shepherded through by established sources — than they have in years.

Thanks in large part to new technology, a film today is easier to create than ever before. But few new filmmakers know as much about dealmaking as they do about aspect ratios, so they increasingly rely on reps.

Before the festival each year, there’s as much posturing between buyers and reps as there is just prior to the start of a cockfight: If the Sundance lineup is indeed as esoteric as billed, it will put more pressure on buyers who are grousing about the scads of small indie dramas by unknowns.

Some reps, on the other side of the bargaining table, point to Sundance selections directed by Michel Gondry (“The Science of Sleep”) or starring Robin Williams (“The Night Listener”), Steve Carell (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Edward Norton (“The Illusionist”) as proof this year’s fest has as much commercial potential as ever.

“Year after year, the big studios overpay,” says one rep. “And then the word comes down: ‘We’ll never overpay that much again!’ But it happens again. There’s a corporate purpose to their decision-making.”

Whether there are as many pickups this year of finished films or not, the influx of first-time helmers has agents’ antennae raised.

“There will be a lot of signings happening at the festival,” says one agent. “As a representative of talent, we couldn’t be more excited. Maybe films won’t sell, but in terms of quality of talent, there are a lot of directors out there.”

In recent years, agents have been swarming Sundance — as much to protect their young clients from being poached as to scout new talent.

Helming sibs Jeff and Josh Crook, whose “Salvage” is playing in the midnight section this year, were signed by the Gersh Agency this week before their film got distribution offers.

Feature film submissions to Sundance, which runs Jan. 19-29, hit 3,148 this year, up from 2,613 last year.

Winnowing through that list is a huge task for sales agents and distribs.

“If I’m a first-time filmmaker, what do I need?” asks one distrib who applauds Sundance’s aim of slimming down. “A condo for me and the crew. A publicist. Tickets for my mom. Airfare. And a sales agent. Cha-ching!”

As in previous years, both buyers and sellers can be expected to have their roles down: Beleaguered buyers say everything’s awful. Sellers struggle to control screener copies and downplay the hype, in the hopes that buzz on a pic can peak at the festival.

Cinetic Media specifically kept “Napoleon Dynamite” off the radar until it screened at Sundance and did not start accepting bids until after its second screening. Pic sold for approximately $4.5 million.

But there are only one or two “Napoleons” a year. “Some filmmakers have insane expectations, but you can’t blame them,” said one vet sales rep. “Everyone has a perception of the Sundance dream, and it has come true. That propagates the myth. But I tell everyone I’m working with that a very tiny percentage of all films sell at Sundance during the festival.”

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