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Blogosphere taps festival buzz

Do buyers take note of flood of film websites?

If a film makes a fest splash but no one’s there to blog it, does it count as buzzworthy?

At Sundance, nail-biting distribs, publicists and filmmakers used to anxiously await the first published reviews, knowing that a positive notice from a major critic could stir or stoke a bidding war for a pic.

This year, it’s the ever-proliferating bloggers — Spout, Cinematical, Movie City News and Hollywood Elsewhere — that have become the instant barometers for how a film plays.

After more than five days of ho-hum acquisitions activity, Focus Features took the first major plunge of the fest, plunking down $10 million on Jan. 22 for “Hamlet 2,” after an all-night bidding war. Pic stars Steve Coogan as a high school drama teacher who tries to save his department by writing a sequel to Shakespeare’s play.

The vibe at the pic’s Jan. 21, 5:30 p.m. screening was excited, but when the first reaction posts hit the blogosphere, Focus execs knew they had something.

“Within minutes, we were seeing the response on the Internet to the screening — it was outrageous,” says Focus prexy James Schamus.

Even before the screening, bloggers had primed the pump. Ain’t It Cool News had been tracking the film, and EW’s Popwatch Blog gushed, calling it “the greatest idea in the history of independent cinema.”

Seven hours later, indieWIRE put up a time-stamped post at 2:25am: “Attendees buzzed about Andrew Fleming’s late Sundance premiere section title, ‘Hamlet 2,’ which insiders agreed should score a deal quickly. It had what by all accounts was a good screening on Tuesday night.”

 Staff members in the Sundance press office say they don’t keep a tally of the number of bloggers attending, but a glance online shows that dozens swarmed to the fest, all posting several times a day.

Bloggers are proud of their outsider image, and their reporting is defined as much by their personalities as their beats. Execs at the fest flip between catch-all blogs like Jeff Well’s Hollywood Elsewhere, which posts his impressions on just about everything concerning movies, including the deals, to GreenCine, which is primarily a cineaste site.

But it’s the bloggers’ quickie assessments of individual films that generates heat — or anger and frustration — these days.

Robert De Niro starrer “What Just Happened?” was initially expected to sell for big bucks. But lukewarm blogger reaction may have had a hand in why a deal hadn’t yet emerged late last week. Premiere film critic Glenn Kenny quickly posted on his blog that the film “isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t trifle.” The Onion’s AV Club blog posted five hours after the Jan 20, 8:30 p.m. screening: “The biggest problem with ‘What Just Happened?’ is that not much actually does happen.”

With new weight being given to the bloggers’ insights, Cinematical’s Kim Voynar says publicists are now hounding the bloggers: “They want your thoughts, and they want it up on the site now.”

Voynar says she and her colleagues felt more pressure this year to make more instant posts on their AOL-owned blog. “We changed up our coverage this year,” she says. “You’re not always able to pump out big reviews, (but) if I feel strongly about a film, I’ll want to post something quickly.”

The value of all this instant buzz remains to be seen. In past years, many a distrib suffered buyer’s remorse after ponying up big bucks for pics that generated enthusiastic responses at a Sundance screening but couldn’t bring that spark to the box office.

The bloggers believe their posts resonate. But at least some in the biz remain wary of the blog fog.

UTA’s Rich Klubeck is skeptical of the bloggers’ ultimate impact.

“At this point, what buyers are really focused on is audience reaction and the type of critical reaction they can use for the marketing of the film,” Klubeck says. “I’ve been in the middle of negotiations, and while bloggers have caused some eye-rolling, it hasn’t seemed to change the course of the sale.”

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