Starry Sundance films look to score

Can Richard Gere, Jim Carrey increase sales?

When sellers trek to Sundance this week, they will be peddling a host of star-driven projects, ranging from a gritty Antoine Fuqua cop drama with Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke, to a gay buddy comedy starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor.

But a bleak economy, a shakeout among indie distributors and a sluggish track record among last year’s entries are raising the question: Can even high-profile projects make a sale?

Sellers — led by the big five major talent agencies, repping a total of 27 films — are putting on an optimistic face, while trying to temper their clients’ expectations.

“We feel like there’s still a very vibrant market for quality, marketable, specialized movies,” says CAA’s Micah Green. “Sundance provides an opportunity to demonstrate audience reaction, critical reaction, and the energy that can surround a movie.”

Yet Green says his clients “are realistic on where the market is and are not expecting that the sales process is always as simple as ‘go to Sundance, screen your film, have a bidding war.’ ”

The Carrey-McGregor pic, “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” is directed by “Bad Santa” scribes Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and is being repped by CAA and Endeavor.

CAA also is teaming with William Morris, on Fuqua’s “Brooklyn’s Finest.”

Boldfaced names are a fixture of the modern Sundance scene, but the stars in the sales lineup recall last year’s debut of Robert De Niro starrer “What Just Happened?” After a tepid response in Utah, the pic regrouped and got a closing-night spot in Cannes, but still wound up going out through Magnolia Pictures, the Mark Cuban-Todd Wagner sister company of producer 2929.

CAA’s list of 11 titles also includes “The Office’s” John Krasinski’s adaptation of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” R.J. Cutler’s study of Anna Wintour’s war room in the docu “The September Issue,” and (with ICM) the romancer “Arlen Faber” with Jeff Daniels and Olivia Thirlby (“Juno”).

Even before the economic turmoil, the retrenchment or shutdown of several indie and specialty distribs affected who sells what and how.

There already were ample indications that the days of multiple movies fetching sky-high process were ending, with new fears that sellers were overreaching.

John Sloss’ firm Cinetic grew to the point that last year it had 19 pics — way too many, several vets say. “I don’t think you can give the same attention to all of those movies,” says IFC acquisitions chief Arianna Bocco.

Attorney and producer Jonathan Gray agrees. “What happens to you if you’re not the belle of the ball?” he asks. This year, Cinetic has scaled back to around 10 films.

Moreover, sales commissions have grown along with the increased volume at many sales companies. Gray says the customary 5% commission is now often 10%. And some sellers seek upfront payments for their services in order to cover travel and expenses.

Agencies don’t provide their services for free either. But they promise connections.

In Endeavor’s stable, “Spread” has some commercial appeal, at least on paper. The pic, about a gigolo in L.A., stars Ashton Kutcher, who produced through his Katalyst Films shingle.

Endeavor’s Graham Taylor and his indie finance colleagues set up “Spread” before Kutcher moved to CAA.

Endeavor is also feeling early heat on Scott Sanders’ blaxploitation sendup, “Black Dynamite,” and Shana Feste’s drama “The Greatest” (with CAA) starring Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon.

Among William Morris’s collection are “Shrink,” with Kevin Spacey as a troubled psychiatrist to Hollywood’s A-list, and Emily Abt’s prep school drama “Toe to Toe.” They’ll also bring Derik Martini’s suburban drama “Lymelife,” which found a home at Screen Media well after Toronto.

ICM and UTA have pared it down to three pics each this year. ICM is pushing the comedy docu “Good Hair,” Chris Rock’s study of African-American hair culture while UTA has “Paper Heart,” a comedic docu-narrative lovestory starring Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi.

UTA’s Richard Klubeck says it’s not just the loss of specialty distribs causing angst. “It’s also the fact that a couple of the buyers that are still around have reduced the level of commitment they’ll make to a film.”

Outside of the tenpercentaries, there are plenty of significant titles. Andrew Hurwitz has “Big Fan,” the helming debut of “Wrestler” scribe Robert Siegel; Elle Driver is selling the horror pic “Dead Snow”; and the Film Sales Co. has Jeff Lipsky’s comedy “Once More with Feeling” starring Chazz Palminteri and exec produced by Rainbox Entertainment prexy Ed Carroll.

Among Cinetic’s pics are the Paul Giamatti comedy “Cold Souls” as well as “The Winning Season,” which marks helmer Jim Strouse’s switch to comedy after “Grace is Gone.” The latter stars Sundance regular Sam Rockwell as a washed-up basketball coach.

Josh Braun’s Submarine Entertainment has “Humpday,” Lynn Shelton’s reworking of the buddy comedy; and Dan Eckman’s “Mystery Team.” Describing the latter pic, Sundance programmer Trevor Groth wrote, “If Encyclopedia Brown, the kids from ‘American Pie’ and Nancy Drew all had sex, their baby would probably look something like ‘Mystery Team.’ ”

Submarine will also hope to build on its impressive docu sales track record with Ondi Timoner’s Internet bubble ride “We Live In Public” and Louie Psihoyos’ “The Cove” (with WMA). In detailing a hidden dolphin-killing spot, the film appears to share the thriller spine of “Man On Wire,” the hit docu Braun sold to Magnolia at 2008’s Sundance.

Despite the financial crisis, the fest is as important as ever to Braun. “There is a feeling it will be a tough year. A lot of my process is just figuring out expectations. As long as I’m on the same page as my filmmakers, it will be a compatible ride.”

“I’m not focusing on the downturn,” says Braun. “We’re signing movies that we think are saleable and we’ll sell them. If I allow any negativity to seep into my thoughts, it’s that it may take a little longer.”

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