New outlets drive fest spending frenzy

Many have pronounced the film acquisition business at death’s door in the past few years. But with more than $40 million spent by major distributors at Sundance, sellers and buyers have one big question on their minds: Can it continue — or is Sundance a one-shot deal?

Fox Searchlight, the Weinstein Co., ThinkFilm and Par Vantage all made at least two seven-figure buys. This buying frenzy came after a number of fests in which much of the available product disappointed execs.

The outpouring of dollars and deals has given many in the finished-film biz reason to think business at Berlin and Cannes can continue the trend.

“At least for the next year, we’re going to be in a boom cycle,” predicts one distribution exec.

Optimism about a robust market can be chalked up to several factors.

Slate financing deals are flowing not just to the majors but also to specialty divisions and smaller indies. Focus recently landed $200 million from Dresdner Kleinwort and New Line last week nabbed $350 million from the Royal Bank of Scotland.

“There’s so much easy money out there. Why wouldn’t you pay at a festival?” asks one business exec at a specialty division.

The re-emergence of the Weinsteins as fest players has also lent a boost. Their company was involved in four acquisitions at Sundance, including a $4 million pickup of John Cusack starrer “Grace Is Gone.”

Harvey Weinstein says “Grace” marks the beginning of a fest-buying period for the company that he foresees lasting until at least the end of 2007.

TWC is seen as needing to fill its slate, a need felt by a number of specialty divisions.

As in past years, the exuberance of the deals could eventually pave the way for more conservative pickups. But even if some of the riskier buys don’t pan out, it’s unlikely to have a chilling effect on the imminent fests and markets.

For instance, Par Vantage’s $8 million purchase of world rights for “Son of Rambow” –deemed one of the chanciest –may have to earn between $20 million and $30 million at the domestic B.O., according to some pros’ calculations.

But “it takes a long time for people to feel the hangover,” says an exec, “because you won’t know if the deal was smart until well after the movies come out.”

There are reasons to think Sundance 2007 was an anomaly.

The quality of the pics was certainly a factor in Park City. Films that many expected to be smaller plays — Adrienne Shelly’s “Waitress” and the doc “My Kid Could Paint That” — went over unexpectedly big, and then went for big money ($4 million and $1.8 million, respectively).

That’s not something that could happen at every festival.

And the fest felt the “‘Little Miss Sunshine’ Effect,” a newly coined term in which execs buy out of fear they’ll miss the next big thing (and Oscar contender). With indie crossover prospects thicker on the ground at Sundance than abroad, that’s a factor a lot more likely to hit Park City than Berlin or Cannes.

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