Sundancers look for pic payoffs

Avalanche of glitz hits Park City

The forecast for Sundance this year: more deals, more celebs, more traffic jams and more swag.

Going into 2005, Sundance is at a commercial peak. The buyers are motivated, buoyed by 2004 acquisitions like “Napoleon Dynamite” ($44 million domestic B.O.) and “Open Water” ($31 million domestic B.O. ).

Fest’s international profile is growing, and the lineup is chock-a-block with high-profile pics.

But the fest is growing so quickly, the tiny streets of Park City can barely contain it. The population is expected to swell from about 7,500 to nearly 44,000 over the ten-day span.

Sundance vets are bracing this year for a huge volume of traffic, tourists and noisy ad campaigns, as savvy marketeers glom on to Park City’s coattails in an effort to build hip, high-end brands.

The acquisitions market will be primed by the arrival of stars like Pierce Brosnan and Naomi Watts, who are seeking U.S. distribs for their pics, “The Matador” and “Ellie Parker.” Buyers express keen interest in smaller, auteur-driven films like the John Singleton-produced “Hustle & Flow” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.”

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Acquisitions execs, who make a practice each year of denigrating the market in the weeks leading up the fest, were rattled last month when Miramax genre arm Dimension — supposedly rendered toothless by Bob and Harvey Weinsteins’ contract talks with the Walt Disney Co. — made a preemptive buy of a film that was said to be one of the fest’s more commercial titles, the horror pic “Wolf Creek.”

Reps for the film say pic was bought sight unseen for $3.5 million, but some other companies say they had seen a tape in advance.

The move gave rival execs palpitations, and one source close to the Weinsteins compares the scare to Glenn Close jolting up in the bathtub at the end of “Fatal Attraction.”

Pre-buys before Sundance “put everybody on edge,” says Matt Brodlie, the Miramax vet who recently joined Sony unit TriStar Pictures as senior veep, production and acquisitions.

The “Wolf Creek” deal, he says, “probably has a few companies taking a second look at possible pre-buys themselves.”

More advance tapes of pics in the fest are circulating this year. Tapes originate from a variety of sources: inexperienced filmmakers who put them out trying to get initial attention, producers who are trying to push directors on agents and producer reps who turn their tapes loose, to name a few.

“It’s just part of the espionage and it’s a game that we all play,” says ThinkFilm distribution head Mark Urman. “It’s just become so silly, the idea that no one gets to see the movie (beforehand) and we all have to see the movie at the same time. There are a limited number of customers for every film. Not everyone gets the tapes, and it’s not for all of the movies.”

But producers and sales reps lament the process.

“Too often these tapes are only works-in-progress,” says one producer with a film in competition. “The tapes that go into Sundance are not finished. So not only do you have buyers seeing an unfinished film, but you have a less-than-stellar viewing arrangement.”

Sundance is no longer just a showcase for emerging filmmakers: It’s also a noisy showroom for consumer product launches and corporate giveaways.

Though fest directors are quietly critical of the swag factor, they claim that there’s little they can do to control the flood of freebies. There’s a captive audience for the pricey handouts, since Sundance continues to draw celebs who often have nothing to do other than show up for parties and logo-studded photo calls.

The mountain is dotted with swag cabins like Motorola House and Levi’s Ranch, which act as brand-name distribution centers to the stars. Meanwhile, Main Street’s 30,000-square-foot Village at the Lift is home to VIP-only services, including Fred Segal’s store and spa, the Heineken Green Room, Yahoo! Cafe, Crown Royal’s Sippin’ at Sunset happy hours, Philips Electronics VIP lounge and a Lean Cuisine food bar.

Homesick for Los Angeles traffic jams? Cadillac has donated a fleet of traffic-clogging Escalades. Craving your weekly dinner at Table 8? Its chef, along with the chefs of a host of other tony L.A. eateries, is hosting ChefDance, a series of invitation-only dinners.

“We do everything we can legally and otherwise to limit what is going on,” says fest director Geoff Gilmore. “We like to make sure the platform Sundance is trying to support is the filmmakers that are there. But we don’t own Park City, so ultimately it’s not our right to tell people what they can’t do.”

Making the biz side of the fest more organized has been a priority for organizers.

Foreign buyers have previously complained that the fest was bewildering. Cannes has the Palais, but Park City doesn’t have a headquarters for sales companies. Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard says past acquisitions in Sundance were sometimes akin to “making drug deals in the snow.”

That could change now that the fest has quietly launched the Source, an online area that allows industry pros to access each film’s data and contact info, distributor profiles and updated information on the movies and companies at the fest.

“The idea of the sales and industry office is to make it a more livable situation for everybody tracking down the basic stuff,” Gilmore says. There is more international participation this year, and many of those people aren’t familiar with how to negotiate Sundance. With the world competition, you bring in sales companies and they bring in new buyers.”

“The next couple years will be revolutionary in the way business is done,” Bernard says. “It could be a virtual marketplace for the festival. This will empower the filmmaker in the process of the sale.”

A lack of world buyers at Sundance, say indie experts, has left filmmakers with few options other than a North American deal or world rights pacts through their reps. It has also centered the dealmaking power in the hands of three or four producers’ reps.

“Sundance as a market has been owned by the North American entities,” says indie producer Ted Hope, whose “American Splendor” won the fest’s top prize in 2003 and who has “Thumbsucker” seeking a deal this year.

“That has not allowed people to cobble together deals on a territory-by-territory basis. It was very difficult to find someone (at Sundance) from Germany or Scandinavia when an offer came in, and you tended toward a world deal.”

Hope says the emergence of a virtual market at Sundance could “swell the amount of buyers, particularly with the date change for AFM,” and could serve as a “one-two punch with Berlin.”

“The only pressure I feel is the judgment and expectations that come down on you whether you want it to or not,” Gilmore says.

“It’s easy to walk out of a festival and say it’s not what you anticipated it to be. We do not go around claiming Sundance is the greatest market in the world. We view ourself as a place for discovery.”