Multiple personalities

Fest grapples to balance indie newbie needs & biz's marquee mania

Fest brass may characterize this year’s Sundance lineup as going “back to its roots,” emphasizing fewer star vehicles and more films from newbie helmers, but that’s not what some industryites see — or want, necessarily.

Can the little festival that could really go back to its roots?

After having unearthed a number of boffo indie break-outs of late — from 2004’s “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Open Water” and “Garden State” to 2005’s doc wonder “The March of the Penguins” — it seems Sundance can’t backtrack.

“Where it is hard to go back for Sundance is with buyer expectation,” says Roadside Attractions co-topper Howard Cohen. “They are wildly revved up because there have been some good performers in the past few years.”

So, this year, the festival finds itself in a familiar and frustrating situation: On one hand, its mission is to champion new talent, and staffers say they must remain blind to what sells in the real world. On the other hand, though, Sundance is one of the main suppliers of American indie fare to an ever-multiplying number of studio specialty arms, indie distribution shingles and overseas outlets.

In fact, the fest has become so important to these distribs that the head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America will make a first visit this year.

“What’s exciting is that Sundance has become a much more powerful and intellectual force in recent years,” says MPAA chief Dan Glickman, who will be in Park City through Saturday. “Sundance is one of the great idea laboratories and a very important part of our industry.”

Glickman won’t be around for the unspooling of Kirby Dick’s controversial MPAA doc “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” He has already seen the film and will only comment that “the First Amendment is a wonderful thing.”

Talent train

A cursory glance through this year’s fest catalog underlines the fact that Sundance is brimming with new talent, but also quite a few established faces. Fest’s most prestigious category, Dramatic Competition, includes several titles that are stocked with stars, including “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” (Robert Downey Jr., Rosario Dawson), “Half Nelson” (Ryan Gosling), “The Hawk Is Dying” (Paul Giamatti, Michelle Williams) and “Stephanie Daley” (Tilda Swinton, Amber Tamblyn). All are available for distribution.

Fest’s Premieres section, usually home to pics featuring more familiar thesps, includes fest opener “Friends With Money,” a Jennifer Aniston starrer that’s a Sony Classics release. The slimmed-down Premieres section also showcases a fair amount of films that are still up for grabs. One that’s generating nearly as much pre-fest buzz as last year’s “Hustle & Flow” is “Little Miss Sunshine,” a comedic road pic toplining Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear.

New outlook

The festival’s decision to trim the Premieres section and to highlight newbies comes as Sundance backs away from some criticism in recent years that it had bowed too far to commercial interests. That commercial flavor, in turn, lured a whole new element to Park City, transforming the indie winter wonderland into an overstuffed snow globe of Hollywood stars, paranoid agents and sponsored SUVs.

Getting back to his discovery theme, fest director Geoffrey Gilmore notes that he and programming director John Cooper have accepted more films from non-established sources than ever before. (The fest evaluated a record 3,148 features this time around, some 500 more than last year.)

“We don’t really have an agenda when we get into a given festival, so we really respond to what’s out there,” says Gilmore. “Every year, independent film reinvents itself. Now there’s a new generation and new set of directors.”

He adds that timing kept some unfinished pics by established directors out of the mix. Thought to be among those is Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly.”

Gilmore is expecting a slew of breakout helmers to emerge with films that are signs of bigger things to come. He draws parallels to Sundance’s 1996 vintage, which introduced David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson, who were not widely recognized until later on.

“These guys are really trying to do something here that’s not derivative,” he says of this year’s filmmakers. “It is a reinvention of independent film. So many of the films are so focused in a way we never saw 10 years ago.”

If most of these helmers are new to the feature game, many were backed by producers with track records.

Picturehouse acquisitions exec Sara Rose says that there are “clues in the credits” as to what titles to keep an eye on.

“You may ask, ‘Do I know this director?’ but then (producers) Scott Macaulay and Robin O’Hara always make a great film,” she says, pointing to James Ponsoldt’s “Off the Black,” starring Nick Nolte, as a title by a first-time feature helmer that she’s tracking.

“There’s a significant list of films that warrant attention,” says UTA’s Rich Klubeck. “But the big question is: Will they get attention?”

He adds that there’s a perception among buyers that with more dramas than clearly commercial fare to look at, this year might mean less explosive deals and box office results.

Speaking of box office, Gilmore says he’s a bit perturbed by the higher financial bar that’s been set recently. “It used to be that a film was a success if it made something in the $5 million range,” he says. “Now it’s the $10 million-$20 million range. Just because a film doesn’t make $20 million doesn’t mean it did not succeed.”

Indeed, when “Hustle & Flow” (picked up at Sundance last year for $9 million) did about $22 million at the box office, industryites muttered it wasn’t a hit.

While applauding the fest’s back-to-basics ambitions, acquisitions execs, always a skeptical lot, say they’ll believe this year’s crop has potential when the see it.

“There are a smaller number of films that are clearly obvious, in terms of what they will be,” says Jason Resnick, acquisitions head at Universal specialty arm Focus Features, which last year picked up competition film “Brick” and Brit pic “On a Clear Day.” “There is less concrete information about these films, so there is more potential for surprise this year.”

A wider array of buyers — from the newly restaffed Par Classics and Miramax, to Fox’s rookie teen division — could also mean there’s something for everyone at Sundance.

“We remain optimistic that there will be movies in our space — that is, $1 million-$5 million at the box office,” says Roadside’s Cohen. “We need movies that are marketable, just like studios, but we’re not necessarily going to outbid them. Studios are about the big win, and their bread-and-butter business is about grossing $15 million-$20 million. But there are also movies with special needs, like with ‘Super Size Me,’ where a studio was afraid of it. So we’re always hoping for that.”

But, Cohen reminds, “What’s hyped up at Sundance and what works in the marketplace are often two very different things.”

“March of the Penguins” was roundly dismissed by buyers at the fest and didn’t spark a bidding war. “It wasn’t a Sundance phenomenon,” he says. “It could have been sold at a closed market like Mifed for all (anyone knew). But then ‘Garden State’ and “Napoleon Dynamite’ did justify their bidding wars.”

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