Sundance digs in for dealmaking

Festival pauses for Obama inauguration

The deal flow continued Tuesday at Sundance, led by Sony Pictures Classics’ nearly $3 million pickup of “An Education,” even as the fest took a dramatic pause during President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Also in the wee hours, Fox Searchlight wrapped up a world rights purchase, pegged in the low seven figures, of competition romancer “Adam.” And Lionsgate nabbed U.S. and U.K. rights to Sam Rockwell comedy “The Winning Season.”

While several fest regulars insisted that this year was shaping up to be business as usual, the day’s events attested to a more reflective mood due to Obama, the economy and the fest’s 25th anni, among other things. The weather has also been more consistently stunning than any vets can recall — about 45 degrees and sunny every day.

Obama’s swearing-in, shown at viewing parties across town, trumped anything on the bigger screens at Sundance. Many people rose early to watch the moment they had awaited or worked toward for up to two years.

At the fest’s official inauguration viewing fete at Zoom, co-hosted by the Service Employees Intl. Union and Overture Films, Sundance Institute’s Michelle Satter and IFP’s Michelle Byrd noted that no prior inaugural had made much of an impression on festgoers. “I think we just didn’t care about it,” Satter said. “But this is different.”

A crowd including top Overture execs, Sundance programmer Trevor Groth, thesp Sarah Jones and GreeneStreet head John Penotti alternately cheered and wiped away tears. One guest wore a T-shirt styled after the “Vote for Pedro” shirts in 2004 Sundance smash “Napoleon Dynamite” that read “Vote for Obama.”

At Jeff Dowd’s breakfast at the Spur on Main Street, indie mainstays such as producers Jonathan Dana, Sam Kitt, Ron Yerxa, Albert Berger and Robbie Little filled the room. The mood was joyful and respectful as the crowd of about 75 watched the inaugural ceremony on a bigscreen as well as various smaller screens around the bar.

The party was also held in honor of eco docu “Dirt,” which Dowd, in true form, enthusiastically tubthumped. After the ceremony, Dowd reminded attendees of the “power in this room” and encouraged everyone to continue to use it.

As they were contemplating the dawn of the Obama era, filmmakers were also continuing to assess how the business has evolved in the 25 years since the festival began. At a panel Tuesday, Steven Soderbergh, whose “Sex, Lies and Videotape” sounded the first shot in the modern Sundance acquisition wars in 1989, said “indie” is a problematic word.

“Since 1975, Steven Spielberg has had enough money to do whatever he wants,” he said. “That’s independent.”

Fellow panelist Tom DiCillo, whose credits include shooting indie landmark “Stranger Than Paradise” and directing “Living in Oblivion,” voiced objections to the current state of affairs.

“Independent film used to be about saying no to the suits,” he said. “But it’s now become exactly the opposite. When you put Hollywood and independent film together, they cancel each other out.”

Soderbergh said the economy “means the hoops you have to jump through to make a $2 million movie are unbelievable.” Casting, in particular, has changed plenty in 25 years. “Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, early David Lynch — there weren’t names in those films,” he said. “It’s really hard to do that now.”

Speaking of new names emerging, the biggest of the fest is Carey Mulligan, a young British stage actress who has key roles in “The Greatest” and “An Education.”

Latter pic went to SPC for North America and Latin America, closing Monday night after a heated bidding war.

After the first screening Sunday, Fox Searchlight tried to grab the film with a preemptive bid, but the offer in the $1 million-$2 million range was deemed too low by seller CAA and Endgame Entertainment, which financed with BBC Films the $12 million, 1960s-set romance.

Written by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, “An Education” stars Mulligan as a 16-year-old British schoolgirl who falls hard for a charming older man played by Peter Sarsgaard. Dominic Cooper and Alfred Molina also star.

Searchlight came back into the negotiations in a second round Monday but was unable to close. Instead, on Monday night, the company acquired “Adam,” starring Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy. Also bidding on “An Education” were the Weinstein Co., Focus Features, Lionsgate and Overture.

SPC, which closed recent deals out of the Toronto Film Festival with Endgame CEO Jim Stern on “Easy Virtue” and his “A Chorus Line” documentary “Every Little Step,” will launch the film in the fall with an eye on an awards campaign.

Sundance buyers are also circling Shana Feste’s drama “The Greatest,” starring Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon; Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad,” starring Robin Williams; and producer-star Ashton Kutcher’s “Spread.” CAA had hoped to close a deal before fest’s end on “The September Issue,” the popular documentary about Vogue’s Anna Wintour in which several distribs are interested, including Senator Entertainment. Senator started off the fest with its acquisition of Antoine Fuqua’s “Brooklyn’s Finest.”

International rights, a key financial ingredient for most indie or specialty pics, also sold for a few titles at Sundance.

“Lymelife,” which Screen Media bought in the fall after its Toronto preem, sold internationally to Cinemavault. Paris-based sales company Elle Driver bought international on competition drama “Arlen Faber.”

(Michael Jones and Sharon Swart contributed to this report.)

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