Theatrical distribution game changing at fest

Sundance 2009 was quieter, warmer and, happily, shorter.

Under balmy skies, there were fewer blowout parties along Main Street and more intimate dinners; many gifting suites but less expensive swag; plenty of open tables at Zoom and the River Horse. With the thermometer hovering above freezing and overall attendance down and a presidential inauguration to attend, Park City was already a ghost town by Jan. 21, four days before the fest’s closing date. 

It’s a time of transition for both Sundance and the industry, with the old theatrical distribution paradigm giving way to new realities. Popular fest pickups such as “Black Dynamite” (Sony Worldwide), “Humpday” (Magnolia) and “Dead Snow” (IFC), which would have easily scored theatrical release just a few years ago, will instead use various combinations of partners and release platforms to make their cash through video-on-demand and ancillaries rather than in theaters.

“The gap at this fest between films that can, might and never will sell is so vast,” says Senator Entertainment exec Mark Urman, who participated in the confab’s biggest buy, “Brooklyn’s Finest.”

“There’s a tentative feeling that people don’t know what to buy, unless it’s video-on-demand. They don’t even know if some movies are theatrical. They don’t know who the audience is.”

But fewer folks jamming into Park City made for a more pleasant festival this year. For once, with industry and media entourages cut back, more locals and film buffs got into the venues. And for the most part, they were happy with what they saw.

“This year’s fest started to recapture the intended spirit. It seemed back to being about the filmmakers,” says manager Michael Sugar, who not only reps Cary Fukunaga (“Sin nombre”) and Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer”) but played a cameo in client  Steven Soderbergh’s 25th fest anniversary sneak peek “The Girlfriend Experience.”

Fest director Geoff Gilmore steered clear of titles banking on a quick fest auction (like last year’s “Great Buck Howard”) by making sure that the movies with stars, such as “The Greatest,” starring Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan as grieving parents, or the Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor gay love tale “I Love You Phillip Morris,” actually felt like they belonged at Sundance.

“At a moment when the indie market could really use it,” says Gilmore, “it’s great to see a range of work at this festival play the way it has.”

The movies that sold quickly were those that distribs knew they could market to at least one niche, and that posed a hurdle for “Morris,” which several studio distribs were circling but weren’t sure how to handle. Overtly sexual material is always tricky, as Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” proved. Thus the hilarious “Humpday” about two straight guys who want to have sex for a porno, scored a smaller sale, and even Ashton Kutcher’s “Spread,” about a gigolo, proved to be one of the more accessible pics at the fest. It didn’t sell immediately either.Perky Brit Carey Mulligan proved to be this year’s Sundance “It Girl,” scoring opposite Peter Sarsgaard in Lone Scherfig’s stylish ’60s-set “An Education,” which after a heated bidding war was one of two upbeat romances to sell to a studio specialty division (Sony Classics paid $3 million for North and Latin American rights).

After losing out on “An Education,” Fox Searchlight scooped up another romance, “Adam,” starring Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy as New Yorkers in love, for high six figures. Lionsgate nabbed late fest entry “Winning Season,” a femme sports pic from James Strouse starring Sam Rockwell and Emma Roberts.

“Buyers were deliberate and thoughtful in their approach to the films,” says Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group’s Steve Bersch. “I don’t think it was an over-reaction, but intelligent, sober analysis.”

Docs played well at the fest, but even the most popular entries, from music-centered fare like Spike Lee’s “Passing Strange”; “The Carter,” starring Lil Wayne; “When You’re Strange,” Tom DiCillo’s take on the Doors; and fashion doc “September Issue” had distribs puzzled about the pics’ theatrical potential.

One Sundance constant remains: The biggest deal of the fest was brokered by a new producer-distributor optimistic about its future.

In recent years Paramount Vantage, Overture and Summit were the new kids on the block. At Sundance this time around, Senator Entertainment CEO Marco Weber stepped up and acquired North American rights to Antoine Fuqua’s operatic New York cop tragedy “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a $20 million ensemble starring Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle and Richard Gere, for $3.5 million with an $8 million-$10 million P&A commitment.

Weber is a hybrid filmmaker-businessman who bought out German company Senator’s U.S. arm three years ago and has been assembling a production slate of six films with the intention of building a distribution company. To that end, he hired away beleaguered ThinkFilm prexy Urman as David Bergstein’s empire was crumbling under financial strain.

Weber scored a deal with Sony Worldwide to release his slate on DVD and pay and free TV, on the strength of the films Weber had lined up: the horror thriller “Clock Tower,” based on a vidgame; two genre thrillers from Gregor Jordan; “Unthinkable,” starring Samuel L. Jackson; Sundance premiere “The Informers,” starring Billy Bob Thornton and Mickey Rourke; the family drama “Fireflies in the Garden,” starring Julia Roberts; and the acquisitions “Public Enemy Number One,” a French gangster pic starring Vincent Cassel; “Splice,” starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley and produced by Guillermo del Toro; and the long-on-the-shelf horror film “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.”

“They’re very commercial in their taste and we responded strongly to their movies,” says Bersch.

Weber pre-sells some territories on each title overseas via different sales companies. “The Informers” launches Senator as a U.S. distrib on April 10.

“Brooklyn’s Finest” fits the bill as just what Weber was looking for: commercial genre films with movie stars in the $10 million to $30 million range worthy of release on 800 to 1,000 screens.

“It fits our slate and defines the profile of the company,” says Weber, who has been coming to Sundance for 18 years. “They all have one thing in common. They are very genre-ish, they have a hook to them, and they have great actors. They are not little slow-burn films.” 

The pic also appealed to Bersch, who approved and bought into the deal as the seventh film on the Senator slate. Fuqua will re-edit the pic, which was found to be a work in progress, for a fall release.

But Hollywood has always been somewhat skeptical of new arrivals: Will they make the same mistakes so many others have made and run through all their money?

Weber points out that he hasn’t taken on too many partners — except a deep-pocketed studio — and plans to stay in control. Senator wants to finance and produce two to three films a year and acquire several more, while keeping overhead at its New York and L.A. offices down.

“We rise and fall on our decisions,” says Urman, who is still happily bringing aboard other ex-ThinkFilm staffers. “It’s nice to know you did it your way.”

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