The real deal

Acquisitions execs and the Sundance fest get serious about documentaries

Come Thursday night, there will be more acquisition execs than usual elbowing their way into the Sundance Film Festival’s opening night feature. This year, not only is the fest kicking off in Park City — versus 45 minutes away in Salt Lake City — but buyers are also champing at the bit to see the main attraction: Stacy Peralta’s surf documentary “Riding Giants.”

It’s a seachange for the fest, which in years past would open rather quietly, away from its central hub, with a film that already had distribution. It’s also the first time Sundance will open with a documentary, dovetailing nicely with the current nonfiction frenzy.

With docs proving more viable in the theatrical marketplace and gems such as “Capturing the Friedmans” premiering in Park City last year, many buyers have changed their m.o. regarding nonfiction.

“A few years ago we would only send a junior acquisitions exec to see an occasional picture,” says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman, who picked up “Spellbound” at last year’s fest. “Now docs are every bit as important and carry the same weight as any other kind of film.” “The thing about documentaries is that they are often high-concept and have great marketing hooks to work with, which is helping them find a wide audience,” says Micah Green of Cinetic Media, the sales consultancy that has helped get bigscreen deals for docs including “Friedmans.”

Still, while a theatrical life for docs might be in vogue right now, some buyers caution that they’re not a slam dunk in other areas. “Docs are still a very tough sell when it comes to ancillaries,” says Lions Gate Releasing prexy Tom Ortenberg.

In addition to the nonfiction lineup, Sundance promises an eclectic lineup of dark-themed films and a sprinkling of comedies.

“The Sundance lineup looks like every other year — strong and diverse,” says Fine Line/New Line acquisitions exec Guy Stodel.

As always, buyers are vowing not to get caught up in the headiness of the place — literally and metaphorically. Distribs say they won’t overspend, and they’ll be careful to avoid being stuck with a movie that eight months later has a very different resonance with an audience than its rapturous response at Sundance.

“If you look at the movies, they all have interesting elements to them but also potential ceilings because of the subject matter and inherent dramatic quality,” adds Dylan Leiner, senior VP for acquisitions at Sony Pictures Classics.

But with several pickups from last year’s selection showing awards season potential — such as “American Splendor,” “The Cooler,” “Pieces of April,” “Thirteen” and “The Station Agent” — not all distribs are down on dealmaking at the fest.

“We’ll come home from Sundance with at least one significant acquisition,” predicts Ortenberg, who is pleased with his 2003 “Cooler” pickup and plans to take the pic wider on Jan. 16.

“No matter what happens with the national expansion, ‘The Cooler’ is going to be a very profitable picture for Lions Gate. When we saw it at the festival, we thought it had awards potential and, lo and behold, it has been nominated and has won awards.”

(Based on critics and Golden Globes attention, supporting Oscar nods for pic’s Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello could be forthcoming.)

Most of last year’s pickups were star-driven, which could be a trend that continues this year. But longtime indie consultant Jeff Dowd wonders whether the distribs have started to play it too safe.

“That door slams too quick,” says Dowd of a frequent buyer reaction to no-name-driven fare. “This will be an interesting year to see if independents use their knowledge and tremendous resources to take the time to see if these films could work. If a film is worthy, will they build the bridge or will they not use their power?”

Together with sales agent/distrib Susan Jackson, Dowd is representing competition pic “Easy,” which, with its virtually unknown cast, will put his query to the test. He’s also working on docs “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” and “Home of the Brave.”

The world of representation for indie films at the fest also has changed. Cinetic Media topper John Sloss says his business has evolved as much as the indie landscape itself has. “Last year and this year we have been shown almost everything in the festival,” says Sloss. “Whereas in the past we would be seen as competitors, now filmmakers, agencies or producers come to us to help them strategize how and what to do with their movies.”

This year, Cinetic will be repping 10 films as opposed to fewer in past years. Meanwhile, William Morris Independent toppers Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson — who celebrate their fifth anniversary together — will handle sales for five films at the fest.

The increasingly competitive nature of the fest has also forced the market to recognize the value of indie pics in a different way.

“So many great pictures have come out of Sundance, no-one wants to be left out of the race to get the one that’s going to work,” says Elwes. “I think

the festival now works to the advantage of the filmmaker. If a movie is great, it’s going to get a great deal. John (Sloss) and I and others have made sure of that.”

But some fest vets feel the overemphasis on dealmaking and the proliferation of costly consultants and publicists hurts filmmakers.

“Sundance actually encourages the auction-like atmosphere. There is nowhere in the world you have so many people telling you that you need to hire so-and-so,” Sony Classics co-chief Tom Bernard says. “For us as a buyer, the chaos is much more advantageous; for the filmmaker, it’s a disaster.”

Bernard suggests that there should be a more organized marketplace where buyers can have direct contact with the filmmakers, perhaps via a secure Web site where trailers and contacts could be posted. Buyers could then subscribe to gain access to these virtual booths.

“Sundance should be a place where they service the indie filmmakers and the indie film movement. They have great movies, but the way it’s handled doesn’t get them into the marketplace in the most effective way.”

Sundance does have a sales office, which serves as a business center for filmmakers at the fest — but the organizers admit it still has a long way to go to reach the level of those at other fests such as Toronto.

Media madness

The avalanche of hype and promotion that rolls into town is another thorny issue for longtime festgoers. In recent years, the media circus that descends on Park City has spun wildly, with celebrities, corporate sponsors and free goodies grabbing almost as many headlines as the films themselves.

Fest director Geoffrey Gilmore calls it “pirate marketing” and has vowed to try to reduce it at this year’s fest.

“I can’t say we’ve been entirely effective at that,” he admits. “The biggest difference between now and 10 years ago is that festivals have become platforms for anything and everything — from a person, to a pair of sunglasses, to a clothing line, to a vehicle.”

It began with companies taking over mansions near town, but in recent years big brands have been setting up shop along Park City’s key thoroughfare, Main Street, causing major traffic snarls and pedestian overflows.

“We’re working with the city very carefully and intensively. We wish we had the solution, but it’s not something we can control,” says Gilmore. “But I’m not enormously pedantic about it. You have to ask, ‘What is it we want to do here?’ We want to be a platform for a range of different kinds of art and filmmaking. It’s not a terrible thing that people want to come and look you over.”

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