Most talked-about titles arrived with little buzz

PARK CITY, Utah — The 24th annual Sundance Film Festival won’t be remembered for big sales, but it may be remembered as the year that buyers wised up.

At the festival’s halfway mark, the most talked-about titles are ones that came into Park City with neither cast nor buzz. Audiences are raving about “Ballast,” a drama set in the Mississippi Delta written and directed by Lance Hammer; “The Wave,” a German-language thriller in which a high school teacher’s sociology experiment goes awry; and the Spanish-language Andes survival doc “Stranded.”

Meanwhile, Sundance’s movie-star titles are starting to look a lot like studio refugees seeking indie cover.

Art Linson and Barry Levinson’s $20 million Robert De Niro starrer “What Just Happened?,” funded by 2929 Entertainment, hoped to play well enough to fest auds to find a buyer. While Linson, Levinson and the pic’s stars worked for less than their usual fees, the film will require a heavy P&A commitment. And 2929 already holds foreign rights. The barbed comedy also offended some buyers, who resented its cutting portrait of Hollywood. “You’d have to pay me to buy that movie,” said one distributor.

Audiences were less annoyed, though no less disappointed, in “The Great Buck Howard,” which stars John Malkovich as a has-been mentalist opposite Colin Hanks, with producer Tom Hanks in a supporting role. The film has already made the rounds at the studios; when it failed to find a home, the filmmakers came to Sundance with the Hanks family in tow to search for a distributor.

Buyers say it’s unfair to declare Sundance a dud because fest director Geoff Gilmore and his team programmed a slate that didn’t swiftly sell the first weekend. “That’s not what it’s about,” said Picturehouse prexy Bob Berney. “If it’s small, good titles, that’s great, too. My sense is there hasn’t been an appetite for the films so far to jump into a bidding situation. It’s a glutted, tough marketplace, and you have to be cautious about overpaying.”

After all, Sundance 2007 was where the Weinstein Co. fought for the right to pay $4 million for worldwide rights to “Grace Is Gone,” which went on to earn just $37,000 in its domestic release. The documentary market wasn’t much kinder, with last year’s hot doc title “Crazy Love” taking in a little more than $350,000 worldwide.

This year’s fest “has a different vibe,” said Overture Films CEO Chris McGurk. “You haven’t seen the early feeding frenzy. There’s a nervousness among the buyers that didn’t exist in prior years.”

Buyers say they simply decided to wrest back control from the sellers, restoring the ability to just say no to overpaying.

“A lot of films haven’t done as well this year,” said Submarine Entertainment seller Josh Braun, who sold “Polanski: Wanted and Desired” to HBO and the Weinstein Co. at the top of the fest with Cinetic Media. “There’s a hesitation in the marketplace. It’s amazing to come to Monday at Sundance and only docs have sold.”

However, that’s not because the market is loving docs; it’s because buyers want to find love before they commit to releasing an indie pic that requires intense labor and investment and comes with no guarantee of good results. And so far, Cupid’s being cagey.

“There are many terrific films at the festival this year, but so far not enough good ones with strong box office potential,” said Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg.

No deal has materialized on three films that played well. Sony Pictures Classics and Paramount Vantage, among others, were pursuing the Indiana high school doc “American Teen.” Lionsgate was in the hunt for Jonathan Levine’s “The Wackness,” starring Ben Kingsley. And Focus Features and Fox Searchlight were still chasing Christine Jeffs’ well-received dramedy “Sunshine Cleaning,” starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.

On a smaller scale, Magnolia Films is getting a good response on both its sci-fi Spanish-language thriller “Timecrimes” (which has already been acquired by UA for a remake) and Alex Gibney’s Hunter Thompson doc, “Gonzo.”

Another fest favorite is “Trouble the Water,” which features life-and-death footage shot by a New Orleans Ninth Ward resident during Hurricane Katrina. The crowd at the film’s Sunday premiere grew animated and emotional as the story’s protagonists endured their real-life quest for survival.

The film also produced the feel-good story of the fest so far, as Kimberly Rivers Roberts, who shot the harrowing footage, showed up at the premiere nine months’ pregnant.

Less than 12 hours after the bow, she was en route to a Salt Lake City hospital with husband Scott Roberts — one of the film’s heroes — to give birth to a baby girl. Press converged at the film’s luncheon Monday to hear about the delivery.

Other fest titles picking up good word of mouth — which may or may not have anything to do with their eventual commerciality — are “Secrecy,” “Mermaid,” “Frozen River” and “Phoebe in Wonderland.”

(Winter Miller and Sharon Swart contributed to this report.)

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