Fest makes room for worldy ambitions

Overseas films get wider play in program

With Irishman Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” — a Belgium-set drama about British hitmen — kicking off this year’s festival, organizers are letting it be known: Sundance isn’t just for American indies anymore.

If public perception continues to paint Sundance as a domestic showcase, programmer Caroline Libresco notes international films constitute roughly one-third of the entire festival. “You can’t just talk about American cinema,” she says. “It’s an internationalized cinema.”

This year, for example, foreign sales companies like Celluloid Dreams and Wild Bunch rep American competition films (respectively, Steven Sebring’s doc “Patti Smith: Dream of Life” and Johan Renck’s drama “Downloading Nancy”), while Brad Anderson’s latest, “Transsiberian,” comes to the festival via Spanish and German backers.

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But Sundance, as both idea and place of business, continues to struggle to find its international identity. While foreign buyers from Canada, France, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Japan and Australia will be in attendance this year, U.S. distribs still dominate.

If past years saw reps selling off foreign territories before closing a domestic deal, William Morris Independent’s Cassian Elwes says that was less the case last year. “If an American studio saw a movie they wanted, they bought the whole world to mitigate their risk,” he says. “Going forward, there’s probably more pressure on the international buyers to step up early to compete with the studios.” But Elwes doubts they can rival the specialty division powerhouses. “But they can try,” he adds.

French-based Memento Films’ managing director Emilie Georges says, as a “small fish,” it’s hard to compete. Memento bought French rights to Gregg Araki’s “Smiley Face” last year, but has had a harder time finding U.S. buyers for its own titles. This year, it’s repping Philippe Aractingi’s “Under the Bombs” and Michelange Quay’s “Eat, for This Is My Body.”

Still, Sundance has continued to cultivate its world cinema competition. Since the section launched three years ago, international submissions have increased nearly 25%. And this year, the festival has bolstered its foreign awards, adding a raft of craft prizes (with two honors each given for directing and cinematography, as well as prizes for screenwriting and editing), in addition to jury prizes and audience awards.


Potentially strong ’08 contenders include Ricardo de Montreuil’s “Mancora,” Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv’s Jerusalem fest winner “Strangers,” Carlos Moreno’s “Dog Eat Dog” and Anna Melikyan’s “Mermaid.”

Buzz docs include Chris Waitt’s “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures,” Isaac Julien’s Derek Jarman portrait “Derek,” and two nonfiction works from U.K. narrative filmmakers: James Marsh’s “Man on Wire” and Marc Evans’ “In Prison My Whole Life.”

But domestic buyers are still wary of international pics. “Most of the foreign films at Sundance really don’t hold up in terms of the marketplace,” says Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard, who adds that the Berlin Film Festival/European Film Market is still the prime locale to catch contemporary world cinema at this time of year.

To that end, Sony Classics chose to go with the German fest to premiere Errol Morris’ latest, “Standard Operating Procedure,” even though Morris has a history with Sundance (a work-in-progress of “Mr. Death” played in 1999). “The issues dealt with in the film need a world stage,” Bernard says. “The headlines that come out of Sundance are not ‘What’s an important movie,’ but ‘How much someone paid for the movie.'”

Sales of world cinema titles may rarely grab the headlines — Fox Searchlight’s deal for “Once” seemed like an afterthought in 2007 — but deals do happen. European Film Promotion’s Susanne Davis says half of the 10 films they supported at Sundance last year were sold to the U.S., either for theatrical or TV. “This is rather remarkable and sheds a light on the importance of being part of the festival,” she says.

Fox’s exec VP of worldwide acquisitions Tony Safford adds that it was the reaction at Sundance to “Once,” which also played at the Galway fest in 2006, that led to its purchase.

There’s also the value of Sundance networking. Not only did “Once” director John Carney gain momentum at last year’s fest, but other ’07 helmers such as Joachim Trier (“Reprise”) were discovered to some extent as well, organizers say.

William Morris’ Jerome Duboz, who signed Georgian filmmaker Gela Babluani (2006 World Competition winner “13 Tzameti”), says Sundance “is becoming an amazing place to find international directors and also for remakes.” Then again, Babluani’s “L’Heritage” played at last year’s festival and has yet to be acquired.

To amp up Sundance’s international ambitions, Memento’s Georges suggests the creation of a dedicated business-meeting spot and less expensive passes so that smaller foreign companies can more readily attend. It would benefit all films if more world players were around to compete, because, as she warns, “Independent American films are less and less profitable” around the world.