In play: "Sunshine Cleaning," "American Teen"

Thirty-plus years later, the story of Roman Polanski’s 1977 conviction for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor remains a Hollywood fascination.

Intrigue with the subject was front and center over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, where Marina Zenovich’s documentary “Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” which examines what really happened in the lead-up to the Polish-born director’s self-imposed exile from the U.S., provided the most prominent deal in the fest’s early going.

The Weinstein Co. closed a mid-six-figure deal for international rights at Friday night’s world premiere of the pic. HBO Documentary locked in all U.S. rights, including video and theatrical, on Saturday.

That it took sellers Submarine and Cinetic an additional day to close the HBO deal with Sheila Nevins reflects the cooled market for docs. While Picturehouse prexy Bob Berney would be happy to release the pic, Nevins isn’t bullish on the theatrical market. Magnolia was also in the hunt, but Sony Pictures Classics dropped out when the acquisition got too pricey.

The first four days of Sundance this year saw attendees taking in plenty of screenings — two of the most commercially promising titles, “Sunshine Cleaning” and “What Just Happened?,” unspooled over the weekend, with every possible buyer showing up in force — but no major sales.

While a number of titles are in play, none are generating the frenzy of last year’s festival, when 13 films sold over six days at premium prices.

Several buyers have expressed interest in “What Just Happened?,” 2929 Entertainment’s $20 million backstage Hollywood comedy produced and written by Art Linson, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn and Catherine Keener.

But its star-studded cast is no guarantee of a hefty sale. Linson wanted the indie to go to Sundance to prove that it could play for auds who aren’t Hollywood insiders. It seemed to go over with the crowd in the theater, but the industry types were laughing the most.

“It will sell,” said Harvey Weinstein, as such buyers as Summit Entertainment and Columbia Pictures huddled afterward.

In the first deal of the fest, Zeitgeist Films grabbed Yung Chang’s doc “Up the Yangtze,” which premiered Friday in the doc competition. And several modest deals were announced Thursday: HBO picked up writer Elvis Mitchell and photographer-filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ doc “The Black List: Volume One,” which world preems Tuesday. It features dramatic portraits of such African-American figures as Sean Combs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Suzan-Lori Parks.

Celluloid Dreams acquired international rights to competition entry “Ballast,” directed by rookie helmer Lance Hammer, which scored high marks from Sundance auds and critics. Repped by William Morris Independent, the well-reviewed drama is still seeking a U.S. buyer.

But buyers in general were moving slowly and with caution in the fest’s early days, dropping out of the bidding if numbers got too high.

“We’re hiding in the bushes,” said one specialty distrib.

Buyers aren’t just looking for good films, they’re seeking that magic combo of an easy-to-market movie that will earn great reviews.

“You want comedies, strong docs, things that are exotic, foreign or unusual,” said Howard Cohen of Roadside Attractions. “The market has changed. You don’t get any playtime anymore.”

Documentaries are stirring up buyer interest, but the poor box office returns of 2007 have dampened market expectations and buyers’ willingness to spend on a theatrical release.

Besides Zenovich’s Polanski pic, another hot-ticket doc at the fest is Nanette Burstein’s cinema verite portrait of four high schoolers in a small Indiana town, “American Teen.” Fox Searchlight chased the film but withdrew when the price topped $1.5 million for North American rights. The second screening Saturday was attended by reps of other distribs, including Overture and Sony Pictures Classics.

“The documentary market has not been that great recently,” said SPC’s Tom Bernard. “In these times, you have to be cautious of what you spend.”

The Spanish-language documentary “Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains,” which revisits the survivors of the 1972 Andes crash detailed in the Piers Paul Reid bestseller “Alive,” has also generated buyer interest.

No deal has materialized on two features that played well over the weekend: Jonathan Levine’s “The Wackness,” a black fantasy-comedy for young males starring Ben Kingsley as a drug-addled psychiatrist who buys dope from his teen patient (Nickelodeon star Josh Peck), and Christine Jeffs’ well-received dramedy “Sunshine Cleaning,” starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as two unhappy sisters who become crime-scene cleanup artists. Fox Searchlight made a bid on “Sunshine Cleaning” but later dropped out. Miramax is said to be in the hunt.

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