Biz gears up for Sundance film fest

With more buyers vying for product at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, pre-fest buys have been unusually active as some companies hope to avoid the festival crunch.

Event kicks off today with a mood of prudent hopefulness for the indie film biz, and fest director John Cooper predicted Sundance’s biggest attendance yet.

As this year’s Sundance Film Festival attendees get strapped and snow-booted for 10 days of independent cinema, this year’s edition looks like a two-pronged affair: a place for buyers to do indie biz and place to immerse themselves in emerging talent.

There’s enough product to whet most appetites. Enough product is offered for hungry buyers keen to fill the rest of their 2011-12 slate, while those sitting more comfortably with fuller skeds see the fest as a soft launch for the year.

And it looks like buyers are indeed hungry. Just look at the raft of deals secured before the fest has unspooled: Roadside Attractions nabbed the rights to opening-night pic “The Music Never Stopped” three weeks before the fest was under way, while Sony Pictures Classics picked up “Take Shelter,” and HBO bought James Marsh’s “Project Nim” this week.

Veteran film programmer Nancy Fishman launched her own label with the acquisition of Israeli director Eytan Fox’s drama “Mary Lou.”

Other buyers have been circling Morgan Spurlock’s newest effort, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

“We’ve been talking to agents and publicists for weeks,” said Berry Meyerowitz, prexy and CEO of Phase4 Films. “We’ll be screening north of 30 films, and we’re hoping to come out of Sundance with a deal done.”

Early biz means less competition for buyers, and with new companies entering the U.S. acquisitions game including FilmDistrict and Relativity Media, fest offerings could potentially have more bidders.

Relativity, with its newly announced worldwide acquisitions head Joe Matukewicz, will be looking for more commercial product aimed at wide releases, as will the Weinstein Co. Meanwhile, smaller distribs such as Samuel Goldwyn Films, which nabbed Roland Joffe’s “There Be Dragons,” are using the pre-Sundance heat to get a leg up on the competition.

Titles generating pre-fest buzz include Paul Rudd starrer “My Idiot Brother”; producer Mark Damon’s “The Ledge,” with Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson; and “Perfect Sense,” with Ewan McGregor. Kevin Smith’s “Red State” is being sold with a live-auction stunt.

“Sundance itself is a pure festival auction atmosphere,” said FilmNation topper Glen Basner, who also noted that activity at recent fests and markets, such as Toronto and AFM, have been mostly about pre-sales. “Having people in the same room, vying for a film creates a great place to sell a movie.”

And films with international flavor could generate some surprises this year. Brit thesp Paddy Considine tries his hand behind the lens with pic “Tyrannosaur,” about a violent man who has a chance to turn his life around after meeting a charity shop worker, while Kevin Macdonald’s “Life in a Day,” a collective global experiment featuring content from professional and amateur filmmakers uploaded from YouTube, is bound to draw auds.

Also on the eve of the fest, Alliance Films inked a first-look deal with Rhombus Media, giving producer Niv Fichman’s shingle access to Alliance’s distribution pipeline which encompasses Momentum Pictures in Blighty and Spain’s Aurum Prods.

Alliance Films will release “Hobo With a Shotgun” in Canada and Blighty, set to debut at Sundance’s Midnight at Park City section.

But as buyers run around the rather frontloaded fest to try and catch lightning in a bottle, a number of domestic and international industryites under less pressure to fill slates are looking to rub shoulders with new talent.

“You can knock off a lot of films that are screening at other festivals here at Sundance,” said Alliance Films head Robert Walak. “It’s good to immerse yourself in the new talent that is breaking here.”

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