Audiences, filmmakers adjust expectations

After a quarter century of vividly showcasing indie cinema, the Sundance Film Festival has bred some great expectations.

Audiences expect to discover edgy new talent. Filmmakers expect to get a shot at distribution and, perhaps, a Hollywood career.

Both constituencies continue to be rewarded. But, at the same time, expectations must be readjusted in the harsh light of today’s economic realities, say festival veterans and distribution execs.

“We’ve kind of accepted some premises in our business that aren’t necessarily true anymore,” says fest topper Geoff Gilmore. “Quality is measured by a lot of different things. And there are different ways of looking at what’s going on in the marketplace: ‘Ballast’ is a dark and wonderful film — even if buyers for this kind of film no longer exist.”

(Technically, “Ballast” did score a distribution deal with day-and-date releasing specialist IFC Films, but ultimately helmer Lance Hammer chose to self-distribute his film.)

Gilmore and his fest staff have long stressed that they don’t want Sundance to be seen as a marketplace, but every year it’s an inescapable fact.

And despite murmurs that Sundance sales are down, multi-million dollar deals continue to emerge from the flurry of this mountain resort showcase. Witness last year’s sales of films such as “Hamlet 2,” “Choke” and “Henry Poole Is Here.”

Focus’ reported $10 million “Hamlet 2″ deal may have seemed pricey, but, says company co-topper James Schamus, “We bought it for the world and we sold it for very good prices overseas.”

That may not have made up for the film’s modest domestic box office reception ($4.5 million), but Schamus waves it off, referring to a notorious 1999 Sundance buzz-title flop: “We’ve all made our trip to ‘Happy, Texas!'”

“We’ll be back this year as usual without much of an appetite,” he adds, “but, as I say, there’s always room for desert.”

Focus isn’t a voracious fest buyer to begin with, and already boasts a relatively full slate for 2009. The distributor also has a title it produced and financed playing in Sundance’s Dramatic Competition section (“Sin nombre”). “We make movies and if they work, they work, if they don’t, they don’t,” continues Schamus. “That said, if we see something we love, we’ll make a very fair offer for it … and hopefully make some money.”

Aside from the handful of big-ticket sales, what’s remarkable is that more than 20 Sundance films landed distribution in 2008.

Indie stalwarts including Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia and Zeitgeist all picked up multiple films, either during, or in the months following, the festival. Emerging players such as Overture and Oscilloscope also were active.

As the distribution landscape changes, new companies are proving to be hungry buyers.

Oscilloscope, for one, is eager to load up on films at Sundance. “It’s a great year for companies of our size,” says co-head David Fenkel, who points to his current release “Wendy and Lucy” as a sign of what Oscilloscope can do. “If you have an indie film with breakout potential, you have to release it in a certain way. We’re platforming, doing very creative marketing and working with the filmmakers on the campaigns. Looking at the (Sundance) lineup, there are a lot films with that potential. It will probably be a very active one for us.”

Fenkel, who started Oscilloscope with Beastie Boy Adam Youch, says they handle their own homevideo packaging (recycled paper sleeves only) and distribution, and they’re about to sign a VOD deal for the company.

Established VOD player IFC Films, which bought titles such as comedy “Diminished Capacity” and Russian film “Mermaid” at last year’s fest, also has room on its fall slate. IFC’s acquisitions exec Arianna Bocco says she wouldn’t mind finding a couple of films that can play wider than arthouse. “There’s always something for everyone (at Sundance),” she says.

Still, Samuel Goldwyn Film president Meyer Gottlieb cautions that times are complicated for all distributors. “It’s challenging, not only for independents but the majors too,” he says. “Obviously we’re going through a transition impacted by the economy and the demise of newspapers as we know them. Audiences are shifting around and seeking entertainment in different venues. As distributors we have to figure out how to make money — or lose less money — theatrically. Ancillaries don’t make up for the losses anymore.”

TIP SHEET

What: Sundance Film Festival

When: Today through Jan. 25

Where: Park City, Utah

Web: festival.sundance.org/2009/

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