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Foreign affairs

Overseas producers are refining their Sundance strategy

With everyone in Park City again on the lookout for Nicole Kidman and J.Lo, what is German actress Anna Maria Muehe going to do to get attention at Sundance?

Her movie “Love in Thoughts” will have its world premiere at the fest with a first screening at the big Eccles theater, which would seem like a prime opportunity to make a splash. But the film is a foreign-lingo ensemble drama, with no internationally known stars, no fest pedigree and no U.S. distribution.

“We decided not to go to the Berlinale, so it’s a risk for us,” says Stefan Arndt, head of production company X-Filme. With German distribution in place, Arndt decided to head for Sundance and make a push for American buyers.

This is just the kind of thinking Sundance has been trying to encourage over the past few years. But the success of such strategy is not assured. Most international films still premiere at Cannes, Berlin or Venice, and foreign buyers still don’t come in force because they want to wait to see what American distribs buy first. That limits the opportunities for the U.S. filmmakers and the international distributors. Most international execs are more likely to be attending late January and early February film confabs in Rotterdam or Berlin.

“You might not have big commercial buyers doing business, but the next tier is looking for interesting films to release; there are still gems,” says Myriad Pictures prexy Kirk D’Amico, who has “Eulogy” and “Trauma” unspooling in Premieres at Sundance this year.

For the last few years, Sundance has been working on beefing up international programming and integrating world filmmakers into every part of the fest experience. Among the World Cinema titles, there are seven world premieres, while most are making their North American bows at Sundance.

“We’ve made an effort to keep the international section very fresh,” says fest director Geoffrey Gilmore, who adds he does not insist on world or even North American preems. “I have no particular desire to make Sundance a festival that doesn’t show a film because it already had a playdate someplace else in world. That extends that policy to a level of absurdity.”

The goal is to help films at many levels. “There have to be multiple agendas,” Gilmore says. “There are titles that have distribution, there are titles that have been seen elsewhere but don’t have distribution and there are titles that haven’t been seen at all. We treat each one differently.”

The result for “Love in Thoughts” is that it landed a prime spot in Premieres. Fest hospitality staff has been working with the producers to arrange for accommodations, translators and other needs. The Sundance Sales Office, launched two years ago — though still not quite at the scale of Toronto Film Festival’s Industry Center — is a home base for all business aspects.

“The sales office is still the best kept secret at Sundance,” says Caroline Libresco, who coordinates the international section of the festival. “It will be a slow-burn process to augment it over the next five years.”

For overseas pics that already have U.S. distribution, Sundance has become something of a launch pad.

X-Filme’s other entrant, “Good Bye, Lenin!,” was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and will be working to stoke media buzz at Sundance prior to its February Stateside release. Arndt hadn’t originally considered taking the well-traveled pic to Sundance, but remembered that Sony Classics had success at Sundance in 1999 with another X-Filme pic, “Run Lola Run.” (It won the World Cinema audience award.)

U.S. arthouse distributor Gary Palmucci, general manager of Kino, is hoping to get some exposure for his Russian acquisition “The Return.” “It’s the first time in a decade we’ve taken a film to Sundance. For us it’s more of a publicity question. Our director (Andrei Zvyagintsev) will be there, but he doesn’t speak too much English. We’ll see,” he says.

The French-Canadian film “Seducing Dr. Lewis” is one of those pics that has been seen at Cannes and Toronto but hasn’t yet found an American distrib. Max Films exec Alex Wermester hopes being at Sundance will focus attention on that one crucial task, but she’s also brought in some experts to get the ball rolling.

“We hired John Sloss and a publicist,” she says. “We’re going to just go, go, go and aggressively get the word out there.”

Tough for tinies

For the very small films that are looking for distribution or any kind of attention, it could be a tougher slog. Heino Deckert, a German distributor and sales agent who represents the World Cinema Documentary entry “Garden,” says he never considered coming to Sundance before the festival added this category. Now he’s looking forward to his visit, even if he doesn’t know quite what to expect. “I’m hoping to get North American interest out of this. It’s a low-budget documentary, but there are not that many films compared to Berlin, so maybe it’s easier.”

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