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Biz shift could goose Sundance

Promising pix on tap as buying lull ends

Specialty film execs and agents are panting at the prospect of a Sundance lineup chockful of highly anticipated films after light buying in Toronto and an AFM that’s serving more leftovers than main dishes.

Add to the mix a new landscape among studio-based specialty film companies that could come into focus in the mountains.

“It’s going to be so exciting,” one grizzled vet of the indie scene uncharacteristically burbles. “You could have a new Miramax, and, presumably — because specialty companies cannot afford to sit out Sundance — a new Paramount. There’s also a (reorganized) Fine Line and a who’s-on-top between Focus and Fox Searchlight.”

Indeed, with Par planning a rejiggering to pump specialty film output under Tom Freston, there’s already signs of new energy in the niche biz, which seemed to have a case of the blahs back in Toronto with the fates of both Miramax and United Artists in the balance.

Miramax’s aggressive acquisitions strategies may have caused competitors to complain, but they’ve also largely driven the marketplace and added spark to Sundance.

Par is exploring either creating a new specialty division or expanding Paramount Classics, which would throw fresh funds into the thin mountain air. Fine Line also has altered its game plan to now release up to 10 films per year.

Meantime, the indie film world has been buzzing over a mix of movies that could conceivably land in Utah, providing peeks at fresh talent and star-driven vehicles alike.

“There is so much anticipation,” says one company acquisitions head. “Everyone and their mother have been holding back their films for Sundance (instead of AFM). I think this is going to be an awfully pregnant market.”

Whether or not the following films screen in Sundance — or wind up seeing the light of day beyond Park City — pics without distribution identified as buzz titles include two by young helmers with toes in Tinseltown.

Danny Leiner, whose most recent effort was New Line’s “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” has returned with the 9/11-themed “The Great New Wonderful,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Edie Falco and Tony Shaloub.

And “The Squid and the Whale,” by Noah Baumbach, who co-penned Disney’s holiday rollout “The Life Aquatic,” with Wes Anderson, follows Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as the heads of an eccentric Brooklyn family.

Other hotly tipped titles include Steve Buscemi’s “Lonesome Jim,” starring Casey Affleck, and “Pretty Persuasion,” starring Evan Rachel Wood, who broke out in the Sundance discovery “Thirteen” last year.

“Pretty” — starring Selma Blair, James Woods and Ron Livingston — is another edgy teen feature for Wood, about a sex scandal at a Beverly Hills high school.

ndie icons with completed films also are receiving advance buzz. Hal Hartley’s “The Girl From Monday” is a digital sci-fi feature in which citizens are stock options whose market value goes up or down depending on sexual activity. “Dear Wendy,” a parable about gun control, teams helmer Thomas Vinterberg with a script by Lars von Trier, and stars Jamie Bell and Bill Pullman.

Craig Lucas, who penned “The Secret Lives of Dentists” has a directorial debut that’s generating interest in Holedigger Films’ “The Dying Gaul.” And Mike Mill’s quirky “Thumbsucker” from This Is That and Bull’s Eye Entertainment, could be another plum pick. Bull’s Eye’s “Crash” was a top pick at the recent Toronto fest.

Paul Dinello’s “Strangers With Candy,” with Amy Sedaris in the editing room, has fans of the TV show anxiously awaiting the feature.

Studio subsids will be choosing only the cream of the crop this year as companies rely less and less on finished films and jump into projects at the script stage.

“It has been true for three or four years that you cannot be a company that just relies on acquisitions,” says Warner Independent Pictures topper Mark Gill. “There are still those who are doing it, but I don’t believe in the model.”

Gill, whose WIP was in a war with Searchlight over “Napoleon Dynamite” last year at Sundance, points out that precious few films can be undiscovered diamonds in the rough these days.

Films with distribution in place that could use Park City as a launch pad include Sony Pictures Classics’ “Heights” and Focus’ “Winter Passing” with Will Ferrell.

Hot docs in the works include “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and “40 Shades of Blue.”

But don’t start adding titles to your BlackBerry just yet. The official lineup will be announced Nov. 28-29.

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