Sundance 2008: Let there be light

Buyers zoom in on sunnier fare

Every January, even the most astute indie film business veterans will shake their heads, uncertain as to what the coming Sundance will have in store.

The Park City, Utah-based festival has become one of the trickiest film markets to call.

Last year’s buying blitz came rather unexpectedly, with more than $50 million in minimum guarantees being plunked down by at least a dozen different U.S. distributors.

This year things seem even more unsure, according to fest topper Geoff Gilmore. “I have a real sense of unpredictability about the program and how it will play,” he says. “There’s a lot of personally driven work and there’s not as much of an ideological sophistication or agenda.”

“In a lot of the work, people are dealing with a certain malaise and sense that the world is a dark place — despair, suicide, desperation,” he adds. “And then some of it is in the context of making light of it, a different, almost flippant take. Off-kilter, but fun. You get a sense people are working through these problems on a personal level, without finding solutions for the whole world.”

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Most sellers, on the other hand, seem to radiate a certain optimism, which no doubt has something to do with last year’s record sales haul and this year’s presumed need for product in what could be a largely strike-stricken 2008.

“It’s going to be a great year, not a doubt in my mind,” says CAA’s indie specialist Micah Green. “Well, at least I hope it’s a good year for the films I’m representing.

“There are some very good, quality, commercial movies at Sundance this year, and more distributors than ever,” he adds. “The market conditions couldn’t be better.”

Says UTA’s indie department chief Rich Klubeck: “Sales activity wasn’t that high at Cannes or Toronto and didn’t really fill anyone’s slate.”

And while it was a tough fall season for films that got caught in the arthouse glut, sales agents believe buyers will be smarter about using the spring and summer slots this year.

“Good independent movies are working — with good marketing, and that includes good timing,” Green emphasizes.

Last year’s Sundance B.O. success stories “Waitress” and “Once” were released in May.

But will this Sundance be compared to 2006, when “Little Miss Sunshine” sold for $10.5 million and assumed the title of the most lucrative Sundance sale on record? Or will it be a relatively quiet year with fewer or lower-priced pickups? Or, what looks to be most likely, a year of multiple pickups at varying but robust price levels?

Three films seem to be high on buyers’ radars: Premiere comedies “What Just Happened?” and “Hamlet 2,” as well as Dramatic Competition entry “Sunshine Cleaning,” starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.

Not surprisingly, these are also some of the most talent-stacked films at the fest. And they skew to the lighter side, whether being flat-out comedies or dramas with comedic notes.

“Look at the films that worked,” says William Morris Independent’s Rena Ronson. “They’re hopeful and inspirational films. We’ve been taking meetings with buyers, and a lot of them are looking for that.”

“What Just Happened?,” which features Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Catherine Keener, could have the potential to top the “Little Miss” sales price and is expected to be sold to a studio-level buyer. John Sloss, whose

Cinetic Media is selling selling the film along with CAA, says he’ll show it to studio toppers in Hollywood at the same time the pic unspools for a “retail crowd” in Park City on Saturday night.

The producers/financiers of “Sunshine Cleaning,” Marc Turtletaub and Peter Saraf, who were also behind “Little Miss Sunshine,” say their biggest challenge is managing expectations on their latest Sundance debutante. “It’s nerve-wracking; we’ve worked on this all year, and we find out in a couple of days if we make any money,” admits Turtletaub. “Our biggest objective in preparing for Sundance is to let people know not to anticipate a reprise of ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ This film is a drama and it has some lighter moments.”

Savvy shoppers

Buyers, meanwhile, are rather uncharacteristically upbeat, though they insist cooler heads will prevail in Park City’s high altitudes this year.

“We’re not out shotgunning with our acquisitions,” says Miramax VP Peter Lawson. “It’s not like we’re going into Sundance and we have to fill slots. We’re pretty focused. If we find a movie we fall in love with and we feel it is a Miramax film, we’re going to go after it.”

It’s a strategy that worked out well for the Disney subsid at the Cannes Film Fest last year with “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” “We went into Cannes wanting that movie,” says Lawson.

“But Sundance is a bit of a different animal,” he adds. “A lot of the scripts (of the films at the festival) have made the rounds before, and they were tough prebuys. With smaller independent films, you’re not going to prebuy them as a U.S. distributor. You wait to see the finished product.”

Gilmore’s doubts over the prospects of this year’s selection could have something to do with the results so far of last year’s myriad purchases — notably Gilmore’s fave “Grace Is Gone,” which sold for $4 million to the particularly acquisitive Weinstein Co. and ended up grossing less than $40,000 at the box office.

“Last year there were more films that sold at a higher level, at multiple millions of dollars, and I’m not sure what it added up to,” Gilmore shrugs.

But, as one indie market veteran notes: “There were several films that sold that probably never had a chance. Some of the deals that happened last year were maybe more to do with PR or building a library. And maybe that will happen to some degree this year.”

WHAT: Sundance Film Festival
WHEN: Today through Jan. 27
WHERE: Park City, Utah