Spate of mid-level deals in 2006 stoke hope for biz ahead

At the hothouse markets of Sundance and Toronto, where average acquisition prices hit around $4 million in the last year, what’s a small distributor to do?

Go to Tribeca.

After five years ironing out the kinks and solidifying its place on the festival calendar, the Tribeca Film Festival finally has emerged as a midlevel market, of sorts. There’s no comparing the fest to the more established clearinghouses, of course, but some 20 Tribeca world premieres from last year’s edition have found their way to theaters, DVD and broadcast.

Then again, if bottom-dollar deals at Sundance hover around $1 million these days, such figures are rare at Tribeca, where the sales pace and box office expectations are far more measured.

“The reality is that very few (acquired) films come from festivals that aren’t Sundance, Cannes or Toronto,” notes Magnolia Pictures prexy Eamonn Bowles. “After that, domestically, (Tribeca’s) the next best thing.”

Magnolia picked up three world preems out of last year’s fest: “Color Me Kubrick,” an indie comedy starring John Malkovich, as well as two docus, “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Jesus Camp.”

“The docs were the best thing about last year’s festival, without question,” says Bowles, also highlighting “The Bridge,” an IFC docu about San Francisco Bridge suicides, which received vast press coverage and a DVD deal with Koch Lorber.

While a few nonstudio distribs fought it out for “Jesus Camp,” Bowles says calling the competition a “bidding war” is misleading. “It was extremely modest in terms of price,” he admits. But after doing the math, Bowles can’t deny the fest’s worth. “We came out with three films,” he says, including one Oscar nominee (“Jesus Camp”) and healthy DVD sales for “Cocaine Cowboys.” “That’s pretty valuable.”

Richard Lorber, prexy of Koch Lorber Films, a micro distrib specializing in foreign-language and docu fare, agrees. “It’s immensely valuable,” he says. “We think of it as a trifecta — New York audiences, New York press and New York exhibitors. There is a sort of cold fusion that casts a halo around certain types of films that find a slot with real, living, breathing New York audiences.”

Koch Lorber has acquired two Tribeca pics: Claude Chabrol’s “Comedy of Power,” which premiered in Berlin, and “Blessed by Fire,” winner of TFF’s best narrative feature prize, which Lorber targeted weeks later in the Cannes market.

And he says the Tribeca domestic launches were important: He would not have released “Comedy of Power” in theaters without the positive response the film received at Tribeca. But with a mere $76,000 in gross ticket receipts, “Comedy of Power” is not performing according to Sundance-level theatrical expectations, but rather has a long-tail life expectancy on DVD.

Indeed, in more cases than not, Tribeca’s deals are ancillary focused. Several of last year’s most-talked-about projects forged service deals with distributors, such as “Mini’s First Time” (First Independent), “Civic Duty” (Freestyle Releasing) and “Lonely Hearts” (Roadside/ Samuel Goldwyn); two never played theatrically (HBO broadcast “One Percent”; A&E nabbed “Street Thief”); and another pair went straight to video (“Kettle of Fish,” “Mee Shee: The Water Giant”).

After acquiring 2006 buzz title “The TV Set,” ThinkFilm sold DVD rights to 20th Century Fox “for a lot of money,” says Mark Urman, head of theatrical releasing. But the company is also planning an extensive platform release, says Urman, who notes the acquisition was one of the company’s highest priced last year, “and it was not something that felt lacking in pressure or high stakes,” he adds. (Pic opened April 6 on eight screens at just over $40,000.)

IFC’s First Take theatrical/VOD day-and-date program also was busy at last year’s festival, acquiring both “Alone With Her” and “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With” with the Weinstein Co. “We’re buying 24 films a year for First Take, so nothing is a pass automatically,” says IFC VP of acquisitions Arianna Bocco, who last year as the head of the Gersh Agency’s indie unit sold “Alone With Her” to IFC. From a seller’s point of view, Bocco says, the First Take offer was the “most interesting deal in terms of exposure and profitability.”

As a seller, Bocco was surprised by the diversity of distributors who pay close attention to Tribeca’s slate, all the way from Harvey Weinstein to smaller distribs such as Shadow Distribution, First Run Features and Film Movement.

So while a Tribeca bazaar may never become a Sundance feeding frenzy, that doesn’t mean it’s ignored. As Bocco says, “It’s not necessarily that these smaller festivals are becoming more important; it’s that they’re becoming as important.”

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