Buyers taking longer to finalize distribution deals

In the first major feature pickup of the Sundance Film Festival, Lionsgate has acquired North American domestic distribution rights to Ryan Reynolds thriller “Buried,” about a private contractor who is kidnapped in Iraq and buried alive.

Insiders say the price tag was in the $3 million to $4 million range.

Directed by Spanish helmer Rodrigo Cortes and penned by Chris Sparling, film whipped up a flurry of interest among buyers after making its world premiere late Saturday night. Pic was repped by UTA, and was produced by Peter Safran and Adrian Guerra.

“‘Buried’ is one of the tightest, most intense thrillers we’ve ever seen, and we were absolutely determined to bring it home to Liosngate,” said Jason Constantine, prexy of acquisitions and co-productions at Lionsgate. He and Lionsgate co-Chief Operating Office Joe Drake announced the deal.

Cortes said the deal with Lionsgate ensures that the film will be released with the strongest possible impact. “So it’s a very natural fit,” he said.

Fox Searchlight was reportedly among the other potential bidders for “Buried.” Searchlight staff who didn’t catch the latenight screening on Saturday went to a screening of the film in Salt Lake City on Sunday.

The deal was made considerably faster than some other recent pacts which have lingered for months. Buyers are taking longer and longer to finalize distribution deals for films playing at festivals. A prime example of the slower dealmaking process came on Saturday, when a distrib deal was announced for “Paper Man,” a Jeff Daniels-Ryan Reynolds starrer that premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June of last year

Other than “Buried,” dealmaking has been slow so far at Sundance, but there are some interesting twists to the usual routine.

One of the new trends: Major studios are popping up among the pool of buyers. Prints are being flown back to Los Angeles of buzzy titles, including Josh Radnor’s “HappyThankYouMorePlease,” which has caught the eye of top Warner Bros. execs.

Another variation: Filmmakers are stepping up efforts to pack their screenings at Sundance with enthusiastic crowds, to show there’s an audience for their film.

In an innovative grass-roots marketing campaign, the team behind documentary “His and Hers” reached out to 250 people at churches and temples around Utah to spread the word about the film’s positive message and to lure them to screenings. The first two unspoolings of the Irish docu were packed. The pic interviews a variety of women about their relationships with the men in their lives, including fathers to husbands.

That technique points to the one of the chief concerns of buyers: a film’s marketability.

Last year’s Sundance grand prize and audience winner “Precious” didn’t make a distribution deal until the festival was closing, because that film, like many of this year’s entries, had a downbeat subject matter that confounded some marketers.

One of the first high-profile movies to premiere at the fest this year was John Wells’ “The Company Men,” featuring a starry cast, including Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner. Movie has plenty of pedigree, but buyers and their marketers are grappling with how to sell the gloomy storyline, which, like “Up in the Air,” revolves around layoffs and downsizing.

Other titles that have screened and are generating heat include Debra Granik’s drama “Winter’s Bone” and writer/director Eli Craig’s comedy “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.” As usual, documentaries are whipping up as much interest as narrative features, if not more. That pack includes fest darling “Catfish” and “The Tillman Story.”

Deal for “Buried” was negotiated for Lionsgate by Constantine, senior VP of acqusitions and co-productions Eda Kowan and exec VP of business and legal affairs Wendy Jaffe; UTA’s Independent Film Group acted on behalf of the filmmakers.

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