Economy brings a more subdued festival

Sundance, the first major fest to take place in the midst of the brutal economic downturn, is likely to be a more subdued affair.

There will still be the usual distribs scouting pics and sellers offering a full range of fare, but the overall noise level at the fest, running Jan. 15-25, is expected to be turned down a bit.

Organizers are marking the fest’s 25th anniversary with special “storytelling”-themed events and Web content. Steven Soderbergh will sit on a panel seeking to answer the question “What next?”

That question has haunted the indie and specialty arenas of late. Despite the fall emergence of breakouts like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Milk” and “Doubt” at the mini-majors, the hangover from 2008 has lingered as vets absorb the disappearance of Warner Independent and Picturehouse and a big pullback by Paramount Vantage just three years after its euphoric “Hustle and Flow” Sundance moment. Add the breakdown of ThinkFilm, Bob Yari’s release arm and other pure indies and the ground has shifted significantly underfoot.

Funding for pics is available, but the capital-intensive distribution and marketing sectors have been in dire straits of late.

“It just feels a lot tougher this year because so much is changing,” said Bob Berney, who headed Picturehouse before it was unplugged last year by Time Warner. “Even so, I’m looking forward to Sundance just for the chance to see movies because it’s often been a place of renewal.”

The 10-day fest will see an array of preems, some for pics that are already spoken for, some not. For many trekking to the Wasatch Mountains, memories of last year’s cross-currents remain fresh — success stories like “Frozen River” and “Man on Wire” mixed with misfires like “What Just Happened?” and “Hamlet 2.” Focus bought the latter for a record $10 million in an all-night bidding war, only to see it gross barely half that in wide summer release.

“It’s a hard thing to know until you get there,” said Celine Rattray, who produced this year’s “Winning Season” and “Grace Is Gone,” a conspicuous Sundance commercial miss. “For every ‘Hamlet 2,’ there’s a ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ Sundance remains the best place to sell American independent films. No other festival has stepped into that role. There are fewer distributors than a year ago, but the appetite is there.”

Ariana Bocco, acquisitions chief at IFC, sees the 1990s-bred bidding war as endangered but not extinct. “A month or two, people said there would only be a couple of active buyers, but it’s starting to feel like a lot of people will be taking serious looks at things,” she said. “It’s always a function of how a film screens. If people love something, they will still compete to get it, regardless of the larger economic situation.”

Fest director Geoff Gilmore has estimated the value of acquisition deals in 2008 at about $15 million, down from $45 million in 2007. It could dip even lower this year, though most attendees have a stake in seeing that it does not.

Among the sales titles generating interest are “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” the gay prison comedy starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, repped by CAA and Endeavor; blaxploitation riff “Black Dynamite” from Endeavor; and “Mystery Team,” a comedy with a seriously adolescent streak repped by Submarine.

Andrew Hurwitz offers “Big Fan,” the directing debut of “Wrestler” scribe Robert Siegel. The Film Sales Co. has Jeff Lipsky’s comedy “Once More With Feeling,” starring Chazz Palminteri and exec produced by Rainbow Entertainment chief operating officer Ed Carroll.

Longtime dealmeister John Sloss, chastened by the outcome for Cinetic’s 2008 roster of 19 sale titles, slimmed it down closer to 10 this time around.

The performance of docs has diminished significantly at the B.O., but sellers are optimistic about improved revenues from TV and the potential for money to flow from the Web. This year’s roster includes “The Cove,” about dolphin slaughter in Japan; “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” about the famed defense attorney; and “We Live in Public,” about a band of artists’ attempt to document every moment of life.

Along with the star-driven preems of pics like Miramax’s Greg Mottola comedy “Adventureland,” several films that got their start at other fests will be seeking to break through at Sundance. They include “Lymelife,” Derick Martini’s 1970s drama set on Long Island and starring Alec Baldwin, and “Tyson,” James Toback’s doc about the wayward path of the heavyweight boxer.

“Lymelife” bowed in Toronto to mixed-to-good reception, netting a deal with Screen Media well afterward. Sony Classics picked up “Tyson.”

The wellspring of publicity from a well-executed and well-received Sundance bow can still propel a film down a “Slumdog Millionaire”-like path. Thus stars such as Carrey, McGregor, Richard Gere, Uma Thurman and Ashton Kutcher appear alongside up-and-comers and indie scenesters vying for attention in the dramatic competition and documentary categories.

The fest kicks off Thursday night with “Mary and Max,” a stop-motion animation pic helmed by Adam Elliot, an Oscar winner for animated short “Harvie Krumpet.” The film features the voices of Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Friday’s Salt Lake City gala feature is R.J. Cutler’s Anna Wintour doc “The September Issue.”

On the sponsorship front, Volkswagen pulled out but was replaced by Honda, and despite reports that others were about to bail, supporters have largely held firm. Despite massive layoffs at Time Inc. and its own masthead turnover, Entertainment Weekly is back for an 18th year as a backer.

But the usual cavalcade of splashy parties and “branding opportunities” has run headlong into a newly ticklish issue — how to cruise through a gifting suite and still look like you’re sympathetic to the hardships that others are experiencing. From early indications, less-expensive wares are replacing electronics and pricey clothing in gifting suites.

A more noticeable force this year is the recent fest trend of charity gifting, in which the usual photo op of stars grabbing swag bags is capped by the immediate regifting to a cause.

Media outlets are feeling a major financial squeeze. Consequently, while the overall media rolls remain flat with last year, the premium outlets are sending fewer people.

“Some critics aren’t coming at all, and that makes it tough for films to get noticed, which is the whole point,” noted a publicist.

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