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Distributors reel over mixed results

Sundance buzz doesn't always equal big B.O.

For the lucky few filmmakers who get into Sundance, dreams of career-making success can get as inflated as last year’s sales figures.

But two of 2007’s high-profile sales — the John Cusack-starrer “Grace Is Gone” and the docu “Crazy Love” — prove that buzz and heavy buyers’ interest don’t always translate into box office success. In contrast, the musical drama “Once” left Sundance without having landed a distrib. But it has become one of the biggest success stories from the 2007 fest, earning $9.5 million — roughly 50 times its production budget.

The three films serve as a reminder that the chasm between what a distrib buys and what the public will pay to see has never been greater. For filmmakers anxious to sell their films, it’s a stressful rollercoaster that runs well beyond the Park City dance.

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“Grace Is Gone” was one of the early, higher-profile sales of the fest. Writer-director James Strouse’s story of a father struggling with the consequences at home of the Iraq War was topical, and came with the star wattage of Cusack, who also served as a producer.

Attendance at the first screening was electric for Strouse. “It had a lot of the big decision-makers for companies like Fox Searchlight, Sony and Miramax. I knew something was happening when Peter Rice congratulated me on a job well done after the film was over.”

In the end, the Weinstein Co. took the film. “Harvey was making everyone at the negotiating table a big Oscar pitch, and that sort of tipped the scales in his favor by some of the key decision-makers on our side of the deal,” recounts Strouse. The Weinstein Co. backed up its promise with a hefty fee: $4 million for worldwide rights.

After winning the Waldo Salt screenwriting award at the fest, Strouse hoped the Weinsteins would capitalize on the momentum and open the film quickly. But almost a year later, “Grace Is Gone” opened and closed, pulling in just $37,000.

“By the time they released it, we were at the tail end of Iraq War film failures and the company didn’t do much to try and distinguish us from the pack,” Strouse laments. “To be honest, I think the moment had passed for the film.”

“Crazy Love,” Dan Klores’ doc on the bizarre affair between Burt Pagach and Linda Riss, came into Sundance 2007 with plenty of hype. It was already a well documented story in the tabloids, while Klores and the film’s sales agent, Endeavor, prescreened the pic several times to larger buyers and indies.

Though the prescreenings yielded a number of offers, “Endeavor wanted to roll the dice in Utah and go to auction,” Klores says. In the lead-up to the first screening, offers kept coming in and deal points were getting sweeter.

One hour before the first screening, Magnolia paid $300,000 for U.S. rights — a decent sum for a doc.

“Magnolia didn’t come in with the best financial offer, but I trusted and liked (Magnolia prexy) Eammon Bowles a lot.”

“Crazy Love” was a critical hit, winning plaudits at other festivals and making USA Today’s 2007 best-of list. Everything was set for it to ride a similar wave to success that Magnolia had with “Capturing the Friedmans,” another hot doc on a controversial incident.

But the film tripped with audiences. Released on June 1, it pulled in just $301,000 before it closed.

Klores casts no blame on the distributor: “Magnolia honored every single thing they said they would do. They went all out. Eammon says (the film’s performance) is the biggest surprise of his career. (The) only rationale is the subject matter and the fact that it is hard to stomach the two real live characters.”

“We sold the remake rights, got a decent TV deal, did OK with foreign. But I will probably lose a little money,” Klores says.

Even if this year’s filmmakers learn any lessons from 2007, the success of “Once” is sure to bring back the big dreams.

John Carney’s music-infused, Dublin love story had been rejected by Telluride and Toronto when he got the call from Sundance. Shot ultra-low-budget with his friends, Carney says, ” ‘Once’ was made in the spirit Sundance is sponsoring. I weirdly thought we would get in. I had even written ‘think Sundance’ in my notebook as I was shaping the idea.”

But Carney’s notebook didn’t consider sales. “I was just so proud of this little baby we had made that I wasn’t thinking much about a distributor.”

Even the film’s sales agents, Summit’s Michael Wise and Eric Feig, didn’t know how the film would do in Sundance. Carney was impressed with how down-to-earth they were. “There was no bluffing. They just talked about how much they loved the film.”

At the first screening, Carney was a bundle of nerves. Most of the major buyers were there. “A number of distributors were sniffing,” Carney says. “Bringing me to lunch and stuff. I got a lot of nice steaks over the course of the festival.” But no offers.

Yet Park City was abuzz about the film. Carney and the film’s songwriting lead, Glen Hansard, were being constantly approached. “On the street, in taxis, we’d hear from everyone how moved they were.”

Even after winning the audience award, “Once” didn’t sell. But as the weeks went by, critics wouldn’t let it go. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, in particular, continued to champion the film. Finally, Searchlight paid attention, picking up the film for a low-six figures — peanuts in comparison with the typical Sundance feeding frenzy.

“Once” went on to exceeded all expectations. Still in theaters, it’s expected to reach the $10 million mark while Searchlight continues an awards campaign for the film’s music.