Agents join competitive crush at fest

Line between studio and fest getting narrower than ever

PARK CITY — Beyond selling films, the Sundance Film Festival has emerged as an unparalleled forum for Hollywood agents of all levels to access both established and up-and-coming talent. It’s so hot here, even Tobey Maguire and his entourage were turned away from a sold-out screening.

The line between studio and Sundance is getting narrower than ever. While “Murderball,” a docu about quadriplegic rugby players, was unspooling at the Holiday Village Cinemas, “Inside Deep Throat” producer Brian Grazer, Pierce Brosnan (“The Matador”) and Kevin Costner (“The Upside of Anger”) were breakfasting at the tony Stein Eriksen Lodge.

Agency heads and studio power players are everywhere this year, many of them stepping out of ubiquitous black SUVs. HBO’s Chris Albrecht, Universal vice chairman Scott Stuber and Endeavor’s Ariel Emanuel are among those powering up Main Street to attend screenings and parties.

“Signing clients is one of the most competitive aspects here,” said Endeavor’s Philip Raskind, who has attended Sundance for a decade and was part of the team that sold “The Blair Witch Project” here. “It’s aggressive and quite competitive.”

Unlike, say, stuffy, smoky Cannes, Sundance’s casual air makes for easier elbow-rubbing. “At Sundance, you can be sitting at a party having a beer with Taylor Hackford,” Raskind said. “There can be a guy who just made agent two weeks ago who comes out, sees a movie and starts chasing the director.”

The art of selling films is also becoming more sophisticated. In their first year repping pics together, UTA’s Jeremy Barber and Richard Klubeck nabbed agency client John Singleton a major pact with MTV and Paramount that brought in $9 million for his “Hustle & Flow” and two more modestly budgeted projects at the studio.

“This past year, with ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ and ‘Garden State,’ or ‘The Aviator’ and ‘Ray,’ the line between the indie film business and traditional studio business has become more blurred,” said Barber. Sundance is a “reflection of changes that are happening on a macro level.”

“I don’t think anyone can afford to not be part of Sundance,” added Klubeck, who’s repping such films here as “Thumbsucker,” starring Keanu Reeves and Tilda Swinton.

Even as the UTA execs were hammering out the “Hustle” deal, the agency was throwing its annual bash with corporate client Amazon.com.

Reflecting the cutthroat environment among agency ranks, “Hustle” helmer Craig Brewer inked with WMA, and his next, unannounced picture is already being packaged with agency clients.

“I think William Morris got the thing that was most important out of it, which was the director,” said one Sundance vet.

Just as the studios have realized the value of the indie market, the agencies are following suit. CAA recently poached Bart Walker from ICM to shore up its indie interests in Gotham; as usual, Creative Artists has a heavy presence in Sundance with Rick Nicita, Manny Nunez and John Ptak all in attendance. The Gersh Agency just hired former Miramax and Fine Line acquisitions exec Arianna Bocco to launch a new division packaging indie pics.

ICM’s newly installed Hal Sadoff also was highly visible over the weekend at Sundance.

Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson, co-heads of William Morris Independent, were key players in the trend. The agency retains the record for the richest Sundance deal ever, selling “Happy, Texas” to Miramax Films for $10.25 million.

“It’s a great thing that this business has finally come of age,” Elwes said. “When we started doing it, they all thought we were crazy, that we were from left field.”

He further pointed out that, with more and more A-list clients booking jobs in indie fare, agencies cannot afford to ignore the sector. “It’s incumbent on the agencies,” he said. “Their clients will leave them if they can’t get these movies made. We’ve got 30 movies this year.”