Everybody into the pool

After '04's hit parade, buyers feel pressure to guess right

This article was updated on Wednesday, January 19.

As jets from L.A. and New York head to Salt Lake City this week, industry pros predict another acquisitive sesh at the Sundance Film Festival.

Last year yielded a breakout crop with “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Garden State” and “Open Water” collectively taking more than $100 million at the U.S. box office. But unlike 2004’s accessible crowdpleasers, this year’s field is tipped to be smaller and more personal and, in turn, could prove to be an acquired taste. There will be a slew of sales, experts say, but with likely lower pricetags.

“Last year there were bigger titles for name distributors,” says Howard Cohen, whose Roadside Attractions picked up Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s expose “Super Size Me” in partnership with Samuel Goldwyn Films.

He adds that this year should bring “a lot fewer of those types of films,” giving way to a lineup with interesting smaller dramas, and pics from various Sundance sections, including foreign fare. “There will be a narrow focus on a few titles.”

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“Last year was exceptionally good in terms of quality and commercial viability,” says Lions Gate Intl. prexy Nick Meyer, whose company snapped up “Open Water” at the fest. “But I’m not going in there this year expecting to find another three movies that (together) will gross over $100 million; if you do that you’re always going to be disappointed.”

With what’s expected to be a more challenging lineup, acquisitions execs will need to stick to their guns and make some critical decisions in the thin mountain air.

“A lot of films will divide audiences,” predicts one indie vet of the Park City bidding wars. “If this unfolds, there will be a lot of films playing to mixed response. Every film (this year) has flaws, and there aren’t very many movies with commercial potential. Historically, it’s been much easier for buyers to collude. (This year) they are going to have to put their necks on the line.”

If buyers are sounding cautious, fest organizers are more upbeat. “I’m very bullish about this year,” says Sundance chief Geoffrey Gilmore. “If you remember last year, it wasn’t like everybody and their mother was screaming about how wonderful ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ was going to be. But I hesitate to make predictions about what’s going to get picked up. It’s such a nobody knows nothing business. It’s very hard — even for people whose judgments are very sophisticated — to make those calls.”

Name Game

Flipping through Sundance’s fest guide, bold-faced names are sure to be the first draw for buyers seeking commercially viable fare. At the recent Toronto Film Festival, the priciest pickup was engineered with Lions Gate’s acquisition of “Crash,” which features an ensemble including Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Sandra Bullock, Ryan Phillippe, Thandie Newton and rapper Ludacris. However, that fest showed gain that bankable names don’t always make the grade: Another highly anticipated film, Orlando Bloom-Bill Paxton starrer “Haven,” had trouble finding a home north of the border.

Available Sundance titles displaying star wattage this year include “The Matador” (Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis), “Ellie Parker” (Naomi Watts, Chevy Chase), “Game 6” (Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton), “The Squid and the Whale” (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Anna Paquin), “Nine Lives” (Glenn Close, Dakota Fanning, Holly Hunter), “Pretty Persuasion” (Evan Rachel Wood, James Woods).

Some of the titles could benefit from a hip pedigree behind the camera, from the Wes Anderson-backed “Squid” to John Singleton-produced “Hustle & Flow.”

“Most of the eagerly anticipated films this year are anticipated for obvious reasons — they’re in a known language and have name actors,” says ThinkFilm U.S. distribution topper Mark Urman. “But it’s not always the films you expect being hot that end up being hot. Who would have guessed that the single most box officey film from last year’s festival wouldn’t be the one with Christina Applegate but with (Jon Heder)? That film’s success defies any rational analysis of the business.”

Urman, of course, is referring to “Napoleon Dynamite,” which has grossed $44 million domestically for Fox Searchlight and is surpassing all expectation in its homevid run.

The boffo biz generated by the quirky teen comedy with no name-brand star power was a welcome surprise for Fox Searchlight. “It would have been a homerun at half the numbers it did,” says distribution topper Stephen Gilula.

Searchlight’s coup was due in large part to a canny marketing strategy on the pic. To spread the word on the younger-skewing “Napoleon,” Searchlight linked with MTV. “The partnership with MTV was a significant element in launching the film and making it an event,” notes Gilula, who is part of a team of execs that makes the decisions on Sundance purchases. “We talk at great length about the strategy for each film. Who we think the audience is and how we can reach them — and we make some guesses. When we are sitting at Sundance, we don’t know all of those things.”

Searchlight, in a co-venture with Miramax, also identified another B.O. hit in “Garden State” at Sundance ’04. “Last year we were fortunate that we had two films that worked at the higher end,” Gilula says, but he’s quick to add that it is not just a big box office payday that makes Sundance purchases successful. Critical darlings, such as Searchlight’s 2003 pickup “Thirteen,” he stresses, are also highly coveted.

Treasure Hunt

Most buyers will agree that Sundance is first and foremost a fest of discovery.

“The reason you go to a festival is that there are always surprises, and you get to discover films with an audience,” says Lions Gate acquisitions veep Jason Constantine. “On paper, this year is a diverse lineup of films, both in the narrative feature sections as well as the documentary sections. Many of the films seem to be character-driven or situation-driven. Those will have to be lightning-in-a-bottle discovery films, like ‘Open Water’ was.”

But judging whether those films will perform beyond Sundance is a tricky proposition. “Their commercialty has to do with the state of the film business,” contends Sony Pictures Classics senior veep Dylan Leiner. And in indie distribution, the state of the biz can change quickly.

Says ThinkFilm’s Urman: “I find that on an almost quarterly basis, as catastrophes occur, a resistance to challenging films and disturbing films. You can pick up a film in a particular climate, and then a tsunami or an election happens, and moods change. I find the public and the media are increasingly fickle and reactive.”

If there’s one distribution trend, documentaries and foreign-lingo pics continue to find their legs. Witness last year’s Sundance entries such as the Spanish-lingo “Motorcycle Diaries” and “Maria Full of Grace” to boffo doc “Super Size Me.” As a result, the fest’s World Cinema and docu sections could see increased attention from buyers this year.

The overseas presence could be heavier, too. Many international sales agents who traditionally stick to the market halls at Cannes and other foreign fests and have shied away from Sundance’s white-powdered maze of doing business in condos and on ski slopes, seem to be warming to the U.S. confab.

“More international buyers are going to show up this year because last year yielded so many lucrative movies,” predicts Lion Gate’s Meyer. “There will be those who think they’re going to see all the same people in Berlin a week later, but those who don’t want to miss a movie are going to come.”

The fest is doing its part to beef up the overseas pic presence by making both of the World Cinema sections (dramatic and documentary) competitive. “It’s about getting these films visibility, and the media writes about them if you have a competition,” says Gilmore. “Hopefully this will develop as part of a platform that will give international films more visibility in the North American marketplace. Largely, in the U.S., the foreign-language film has been consigned to an auteu
r ghetto. What I’m looking to do with the competition is to present primarily new filmmakers — like what we do in dramatic competition for U.S. filmmakers.”

But Gilmore stresses that developing a higher profile for foreign pics could take time. “I’m not so optimistic about the parochialism in this country that I think international films will break out right away.”

Sundance has made strides in helping to establish docs among wider audiences over the past few years. As ever, this year’s docu selections will be closely watched.

Says Constantine: “Every year, the Sundance doc section is extraordinary. It has diverse films with great filmmaking, and this year’s slate looks as strong as it’s ever been. Everyone will cover docs to make sure there’s nothing being missed.”

Open Market

Meanwhile, buyers are finding that a larger number of the available titles at the fest boast sales agents. “It seems like more films have representation,” notes IFC Films acquisitions veep Sarah Lash. “There are very few films without someone hawking them, and the seller field is more crowded.”

Indeed, one rep laments that there have been some bare-knuckle brawls over landing films for sales slates this year. “There have been a lot of instances where a seller thought they had a film,” he says, “and someone came in and stole it out from under them.”

A precedent-setting year in terms of pickups in 2004 might have brought a lot of new vendors out of the woodwork, but it has put enormous pressure on this year’s films to be sold.

“Sundance is a mature marketplace and an expected part of the supply process for studio distributors,” says UTA agent Jeremy Barber, who will be handling sales on a number of films at the fest, including the buzzed-about “Hustle & Flow.” “As the festival becomes a worldwide marketing machine, it raises the stakes for everyone. That’s healthy, because it means more money and more product for everyone, but it’s also a lot of pressure.”

“The confluence of commerciality last year was certainly unprecedented, but it doesn’t mean it is a trend,” adds John Sloss, whose shingle Cinetic Media has been behind some of Sundance’s biggest breakouts. “But I think the distributors feel more pressure now, because last year proved that Sundance films can work in the marketplace.”