Sneaks hit peak at Sundance fest

Underground trading in screeners reaches frenzy

At Sundance each year there is both snow and subterfuge. This weekend, for example, many potential buyers complained there was nothing worth seeing, while others candidly admitted they had already seen almost everything.

That’s because the underground trading in screeners, which acquisitions execs float around in advance to get a leg up, has reached frenzied proportions.

This year, many acquisitions pros said that they saw more pics than ever before via screeners coming into the festival. For buyers left out of those circles, the mere thought of a seller preferentially screening a pic to some companies and not others can create major paranoia: When Bob and Harvey Weinstein preemptively bought “Wolf Creek” before it screened here a year ago, the competish cried foul and accused the pic’s sales agent, Arclight, of slipping “Creek” to the brothers in advance. The Weinsteins contended they bought the buzz title sight unseen.

This time around, “The Illusionist” — starring Edward Norton, and produced by Bob Yari, Michael London and “Ocean’s Thirteen” scribes Brian Koppelman and David Levien — has generated similar scuttlebutt.

As buyers scrambled to get sneak peeks at as many pics as they could before the fest, “Illusionist” was one title that routinely came up as having been seen. That was news to the pic’s producers — who had pledged to keep a lid on the film after a test screening went well. When rampant rumors began floating around town that the pic was being pooh-poohed, London said, he began some detective work to see if there had been a leak.

“The head of one company saw an unfinished cut of our movie, probably from a DVD that was stolen or copied during post-production,” said London, whose previous credits include “Sideways.” “He loved the movie and asked me to convey a preemptive offer to buy the movie before Sundance to Bob Yari. At the time I was so horrified by the whole conversation that I just kept it to myself.”

London told the exec he’d have to wait till Sundance to bid on “Illusionist” along with everyone else — and fended off requests from other rival distribs to get a look-see — but even more murmurs emerged that the film was being actively screened by other companies.

“Within a couple of weeks, word got around about the potential buyer, and all of a sudden there were a dozen people at other companies claiming that they’d seen the movie as well,” London said. “None of it was ever substantiated. It seemed to be a lot of people with their own agendas trying to either hurt our prospects or help their own job prospects. Or both. We had to go reassure the heads of each company that no one has been shown the movie and that no one would be negotiated with before Sundance.”

Still, buyers from a few companies contend they have seen the movie, and Yari has filed a lawsuit against producer Cathy Schulman, claiming, amid allegations over the pic “Crash,” that she interfered with the sale and promotion of “Illusionist” by prematurely releasing early cuts of the film.

Meanwhile, the producers of other buzz pics were scrambling to play down hype on their titles: When the lineup was being crafted, one rep even asked the fest to move his pic out of the opening weekend so as not to get caught in the maelstrom.

But even if a pic leaks, acquisition and distribution execs say that they like to see how a film plays on the bigscreen before making up their minds. “We don’t like to watch those Avid output tapes,” said one studio distribution topper, who added he had not seen “Illusionist.”

Away from the controversy, but perhaps sensing the palpable frenzy for titles this year, Sundance honchos Geoffrey Gilmore and Robert Redford were telling the press corps Thursday not to get swept up in the buzz ahead of a pic’s actual screening.

“It’s hard to talk about the festival when you guys haven’t seen the films yet,” Gilmore told the press at the Kimball Arts Center while introducing the opening-night pic, Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money.” “Hold your judgment about what the festival is until you get through the festival,” he added.

“We provide, you decide,” said Redford. “We don’t program for commerciality. We program for diversity.”

With organizers characterizing this year’s lineup as substantially more “indie” — and following decidedly mixed reactions by buyers to Cannes, Toronto and the American Film Market — the studios’ specialty execs seemed more tetchy than ever as they jockeyed for position and planned to screen top priorities.

There are a few pics pegged in advance as “commercial” in a weekend frontloaded with buzz titles: “Little Miss Sunshine” today, “The Night Listener” on Saturday and “The Illusionist” on Sunday. Adding to the logjam will be Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep” and Robert Downey Jr. starrer “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” among others.

Behind the scenes, an elaborate dance was playing out Thursday as blase acquisitions execs downplayed interest, nervous sales reps managed expectations to avoid overhyping their projects and animated agents pumped pics in which their clients were starring.

Such divergent outlooks — a festgoer can be led to believe the event is either an imminent dud or a bonanza, depending on whom one runs into in the Park City Marriott lobby — seem more intense this year than ever, as execs at retooled studio banners hope to fill their slates and impress their bosses and fewer projects are tagged as obvious targets.

In the end, it’s the weekend screenings that will make or break the films rather than any espionage.

“The circus surrounding the higher-profile titles this year has been especially bizarre because of all the new competition among the specialized divisions,” London said. “The bottom line is that come Sunday night, each of them will sit and make up their own minds about the movie and hopefully come out very enthusiastic. Nothing else matters.”

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