Buzz is back as a mountain of deals get done

PARK CITY, Utah — New Sundance Film Festival topper John Cooper vowed that this year’s event (Jan. 21-31) would mark a return to basics, while fest founder Robert Redford emphasized the fest should be about discovery. Did they succeed? Yes. With less tabloid-style hooplah, the emphasis was again on films. The fest, and the execs in attendance, returned to its mandate in several areas, while adding a few key innovations.

Big deals

Seven-figure pickups have become increasingly rare, as have fast deals, and acquisitions at most fests had slowed to a crawl over the past two years. Sundance 2010 turned that trend around with a ferocity no one expected and with a flurry of major theatrical distribution deals inked on the spot.

Lionsgate paid $3.2 million for domestic distribution rights to Ryan Reynolds-starring horror-thriller “Buried.” Focus Features — which hasn’t bought a fest title in two years — made a deal to pay $4.8 million for domestic and certain territory rights to Annette Bening-Julianne Moore starrer “The Kids Are All Right.”

Focus took rights for the U.S., U.K., Germany and South Africa, and started working on the deal within 24 hours of the film’s premiere, beating out a number of suitors, including Fox Searchlight, Summit Entertainment, Sony Pictures Classics and the Weinstein Co.

“Buried,” repped by UTA’s Independent Film Group, also sparked a bidding war. Lionsgate was the victor, closing the deal within 24 hours of the film’s premiere. “?’Buried’ is an example of a film that we’ve known about for a long time, both because of the the director, Rodrigo Cortes, and Ryan (Reynolds). Once we saw it, we realized this was something extraordinary and we knew we had to have it,” Lionsgate prexy of acquisitions and co-productions Jason Constantine said.

If the level of business was a litmus test for the lineup selected by Cooper and his lieutenant Trevor Groth, they passed with high marks.

“It’s ironic, because we were showcasing the best, most original work, not what might be commercial. But all of a sudden, what’s good has commercial potential,” Cooper tells Variety.

New players

Some filmmakers at Sundance found themselves having discussions with a new breed of distributor. “I never thought there would come a day when I’d be talking to YouTube about one of my films,” one helmer said.

Publisher Hannover House’s film and vid arm paid $2 million for Joel Schumacher’s dark teen thriller “Twelve” a day before the film even unspooled on Jan. 29. Hannover has released a handful of titles theatrically, but until now hadn’t jumped into bigger films. A private equity fund is backing title acquisitions for the company.

Newmarket plunked down around $1 million for U.S. distribution rights to Spencer Susser’s dark “Hesher.”

Both films raised the major question at Sundance: how to market them. Indie distribs got badly bruised in the festival’s heyday, when they’d quickly ink a deal to avoid losing out on a bid, only to find out that the film wasn’t so easy to sell to the public.

“Twelve” (starring Chace Crawford and Emma Roberts) chronicles the violent and drug-fueled exploits of privileged Manhattan teens. “Hesher” is an ultra-violent look at a mayhem-prone loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who takes up with a family still reeling from a death. Some distribs worried that these pics would be tough sells, but their respective buyers expressed confidence that they know how to handle them.

Majors joined the ‘Dance

Hollywood studios joined the pool of potential buyers. Prints of at least two films were flown back to L.A. for viewing by studio execs who aren’t in the habit of making the trek to Park City. Josh Radnor’s “HappyThankYouMorePlease” reportedly caught the eye of Warners, while several studios viewed docu “The Tillman Story,” about the pro-football player killed in friendly fire in Afghanistan. Docu “Catfish” also was getting studio interest. And Paramount claimed the first Sundance deal, picking up worldwide distribution rights to Davis Guggenheim’s docu “Waiting for Superman,” about the country’s public education crisis. Par and Participant Media inked the deal in the days leading up to the fest, but waited to announce the news until they arrived in Park City.

Scaled-back hooplah

Organizers largely succeeded in steering Sundance back to its real purpose: a no-frills showcase for independent film, vs. a parade of paparazzi, actors’ entourages and gift bags from guerrilla marketers.

“There wasn’t as much star-wattage or focus on stars,” one veteran producer observed. “The attention was on the films and the filmmakers. People are definitely up here to see the movies. It used to be that more people came for the parties.”

The only agency to have a party was CAA, but that event was held in conjuction with Sundance, so as it make it more in line with the fest. There were plenty of smaller dinners and premiere parties, but they had much more of an industry feel.

The spotlight was on film, and not the Paris Hiltons of the world, as Redford stated during the opening press conference.

Business innovations

At a time with an ever-shrinking number of distributors, Overture Films toppers Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett came up with a radical plan: A management buyout. While parent Liberty Media wants to rethink its Overture spending, the duo have begun quiet talks with financiers about a buyout.

When Daily Variety broke that story Jan. 25, rivals at Sundance observed that McGurk and Rosett face an uphill battle in raising capital — but wished them well. Most rivals concur that it’s healthy for the marketplace if Overture stays robust and active.

WME’s indie head Graham Taylor said Sundance 2010 was a good sign for the indie film biz.

“I bet five more films deals close before Sunday’s awards ceremony,” Taylor predicted a week into the fest. “We’re not in a crisis anymore; we’re in a speedy recovery.”

Taylor concurred that buyers were making decisions more quickly, although he added dealmaking still remained methodical and calculated.

“It takes three to four days,” said Taylor, who worked closely with “Hesher” buyer Newmarket Films before inking a deal on the pic.

“Buyers want to see the various press reactions to a film, see it with audiences at other screenings, and screen the film for execs in New York and Los Angeles. The right deal means getting into bed with the right partner,” Taylor added.

Other films drawing heavy interest from buyers that should seal theatrical distribution deals include Debra Granik’s drama “Winter’s Bone,” featuring a breakout performance by Jennifer Lawrence as a young women in the Ozarks tracking down her meth-dealing father, as well as Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” and Michael Winterbottom’s “The Killer Inside Me,” both repped by WME.

Also generating interest were “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” and “Douchebag,” as well as “Blue Valentine.”

Newmarket, Apparition and homevid partner Sony Worldwide Acqusitions Group were rumored to be interested in Adrian Brody-Sarah Polley monster pic “Splice.”

But deals will continue to percolate. Smaller distribs including IFC, Magnolia, Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn often wait until after a festival — whether Sundance, the Toronto Film Fest or Cannes — to seal their deals.

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