New distribution streams, careful rollouts nurture Sundance pickups

It’s known as the Sundance Effect: films that play big for enthusiastic Park City audiences, generating a hefty sale. But some don’t achieve the same buzz when they hit theaters, while others that garner initially mixed critical reaction (like 2010′s “Winter’s Bone”) can become sleeper hits. As the biz schusses to Park City with checkbooks in hand, a look at the class of 2012 suggests that nurturing quality pickups with careful marketing, targeted release dates, measured rollouts and hybrid distribution can be more effective than simply dating star vehicles.

While Grand Jury Prize-winner “Beasts of the Southern Wild” earned slightly less at the box office ($11.3 million) than the Bradley Cooper-Zoe Saldana starrer “The Words” ($11.5 million; the top Sundance theatrical), it also cost less — Fox Searchlight reportedly paid less than $1 million for the U.S. “Beasts” rights, while CBS Films forked over $2 million plus a $1.5 million marketing commitment for U.S. rights to “Words.”

CBS nabbed “Words” after an industry screening created an overnight bidding war a week ahead of its closing-night premiere, then rolled the dice on a 2,801-screen bow, the only wide release among Sundance’s 2012 crop, with a marketing push that was modest for its screen count, yet larger than initially expected. The pic received tepid reviews on its opening Sept. 7 weekend, and failed to ignite hoped-for awards buzz.

Fox Searchlight, meanwhile, positioned low-budget Bayou drama “Beasts” as counterprogramming to summer tentpoles, bowing the film on June 27 in four theaters, and then growing it to 318 venues over its five-month run, with a homevideo bow timed to year-end kudos, and earned four Oscar noms.

Last year’s top five Sundance pickups combined for a little better than $40 million theatrically, in line with the top five from 2010 and 2011, with 2009 as an outlier, due to Lionsgate’s $47.6 million-grossing “Precious.”

Searchlight also demonstrated good timing with the biggest buy of the 2012 festival, “The Sessions” (then titled “The Surrogate”), ponying up an estimated $6 million for worldwide rights. The distrib bowed the drama Oct. 19, and platformed it to 516 screens, which paid off with Golden Globe noms for stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, and an Oscar nom for Hunt.

The coming months will determine how far past its current $7.8 million global cume ($5.6 million domestic) it can go.

Meanwhile Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions paid more than $2 million for U.S. rights to the finance thriller “Arbitrage,” seeking to duplicate the pre-theatrical VOD distribution success they had with “Margin Call” ($5.4 million) the previous year. “Arbitrage” minted $7.9 million, scored well in ancillary, and nabbed star Richard Gere a Golden Globe nom. Its $3 million Lionsgate-funded marketing push was bigger than most day-and-date rollouts, in order to support simultaneous $7 VOD rentals. Roadside co-prexy Howard Cohen says the pic’s aggressive 197-screen opening on Sept. 14, along with its genre and multiplex appeal, were key reasons it outperformed “Margin Call.”

IFC, a distrib whose bread-and-butter is day-and-date, bought the largest number of Sundance films (12) last year, and had its biggest success with the hybrid release of Mike Birbiglia’s adaptation of his one-man show “Sleepwalk With Me,” acquired just after the festival. The comedian star/helmer and producer Ira Glass launched an aggressive online campaign that encouraged fans to request the film at their local theaters, helping overcome exhib resistance to day-and-date fare. The pic, which bowed Aug. 24 at one venue and expanded to 135, laffed up an impressive $2.3 million from a three-month run fairly unencumbered by its Aug. 31 VOD bow.

Not all hybrid releases of Sundance pickups saw success. The Weinstein Co.’s new compressed-window releasing arm, Radius-TWC, paid an estimated $2 million apiece for star-filled comedies “Bachelorette” (Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson, James Marsden); and “Lay the Favorite” (Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Rebecca Hall). “Bachelorette” earned $448,000 in its one-month September run in 60 theaters; “Favorite” took in just $21,000 during its weekend-long run in 61 theaters last month.

VOD grosses for these and other day-and-date films aren’t made publically available, which can make cursory theatrical runs a cloudy barometer of their achievement. Sundance Selects/IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring, who oversees those labels and the genre arm IFC Midnight, says Sundance horror pickup “The Pact” did “phenomenally well” in ancillary, despite having only a few evening theatrical screenings in the summer.

Magnolia, meanwhile, experienced its biggest Sundance-related hit with a release that strayed from its customary hybrid model, the buzzed-about doc “The Queen of Versailles,” Lauren Greenfield’s portrait of a rich family that fell victim to the economic crisis. The reportedly mid-six-figure North American pickup scored a profitable $2.4 million in theaters.

Sci-fi pickups meant success for FilmDistrict, which nabbed U.S. rights to the offbeat comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed”; and partners Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions and Samuel Goldwyn, with “Robot & Frank.” FilmDistrict paid more than $1 million for “Safety,” and made a significant marketing commitment, then counterprogrammed the pic against summer blockbusters, grossing $4 million in an impressive four-month run. “Robot,” starring Frank Langella, cost $2 million for rights in North America and select foreign countries, got a late summer release, and took in $3.3 million.

Other Sundance buys that turned into modest late-summer hits — grossing just over $3 million each — included Sony Pictures Classics’ romantic comedy “Celeste and Jesse Forever” (starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg) and the fest’s opening night doc, the Oscar-nominated “Searching for Sugar Man,” also from SPC.

Perhaps the biggest flop out of Sundance was the Robert De Niro-toplined supernatural thriller “Red Lights.” Millennium Entertainment paid about $4 million for U.S. rights, with the pic grossing just $53,000 in its five-week summer run.

Among the Sundance debuts lucky enough to snag theatrical distribution, 20 made less than $100,000 in theaters. Still others have yet to debut, including LD Distribution’s $1 million-range acquisition “Black Rock,” Indomina/BET’s “Luv” and IFC pickups “Simon Killer,” “Grabbers” and “Room 237.”

Even the hottest fest pickups can take a circuitous route to theaters. “Shadow Dancer,” the Andrea Riseborough/Clive Owen-toplined IRA thriller, which garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews and was snapped up by ATO Pictures for a reported $1 million, moved to Magnolia after ATO owner Dave Matthews revealed last month that he was shuttering the distribution arm of his film production shingle.

The caveat: Even stars and great buzz can’t guarantee an easy road to success.

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