Sundance sales continue slowly

Paramount Vantage picks up 'Teen'

As buyers return home, many of them empty-handed after an intense burst of mid-fest acquisitions, sales activity at Sundance 2008 continues at a slow trickle.

Documentaries continue to stir up buyer interest. After four days of protracted negotiations, Paramount Vantage closed a deal late Tuesday night to acquire world rights (excluding the U.K.) for Nanette Burstein’s Indiana high school cinema verite doc “American Teen,” marking the fourth movie to sell at Sundance in two days.

Despite early reports of a higher figure, Vantage said they acquired “American Teen” for $1 million, but promised a significant P&A commitment. After the A&E Indie Films documentary, which tracks four high school seniors over four months, screened Friday night, Fox Searchlight made a bid of $1.5 million, which later expired; Sony Pictures Classics also pursued the film, but pulled out Tuesday afternoon, leaving the pic to Vantage.

Popular on Variety

“They had higher offers,” said Vantage marketing co-prexy Megan Colligan. “We followed the filmmakers for three days. We wanted the movie badly. For us this movie has the ability to play art houses and also play strong for teenagers and college kids. There’s value in putting the money into marketing the film, as we did with ‘Inconvenient Truth.'”

Rival co-sellers Cinetic and CAA, and five indecisive parties on the filmmaker/investor side, made the negotiation process more time-consuming and complex than it needed to be, according to several of the buyers.

Other docs expected to sell during or after the fest are the Katrina Hurricane doc “Trouble the Water,” which Participant screened and liked (Jeff Skoll’s involvement would help the doc land a theatrical distributor); popular music docs “Anvil” and “Patti Smith”; and steroid doc “Bigger, Stronger, Faster.” Spanish language Andes survival doc “Stranded,” which deals with cannibalism, will likely land a micro-distrib.

Other films that sold Monday and Tuesday were the Steve Coogan high school comedy “Hamlet 2,” which sold world rights to Focus Features for $10 million, one of the biggest deals ever at Sundance; the edgy thriller “Choke,” starring Sam Rockwell, which Fox Searchlight acquired for $5 million for the world (less several territories), and the spiritual drama “Henry Poole is Here,” starring Luke Wilson, for which Overture scooped up U.S. rights for $3.5 million.

“This fest has been crazy,” admitted UTA seller Rich Klubeck, who sold “Choke.” “For the right film, nothing has changed. But the target has narrowed; there are fewer films that generate that kind of belief from the buyers. Sales may be happening later.”

Many other higher-budgeted films with stars that had hoped to score a lucrative Sundance sale face a more sober post-festival reality. “These filmmakers will lick their wounds; it will take a few days for them to accept their fate,” Picturehouse prexy Bob Berney said. “It’s about making a realistic deal about what the value of the film would be vs. what you made it for.”

A laundry list of bigger features with name stars didn’t swiftly score a distrib and now face diminished expectations inclue two inside-Hollywood comedies, Art Linson and Barry Levinson’s $20 million “What Just Happened,” starring Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis and Sean Penn, and Steve Schachter’s “The Deal,” starring Bill Macy and Meg Ryan.

For “What Just Happened,” 2929 Entertainment could put up P&A toward a studio service distrib arrangement, complete with output deals. But seller CAA insists that the film has multiple big money offers on the table.

Also not feeling immediate love were Groundswell’s Michael Chabon adaptation “Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” starring Peter Sarsgaard and Sienna Miller; the wine country family drama “Bottle Shock,” starring Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman and Chris Pine; “Diminished Capacity,” starring Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda; “The Merry Gentleman,” directed by and starring Michel Keaton; Sharon Maguire’s darkly political “Incendiary,” starring Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor; “The Wackness,” starring Ben Kingsley; “Sunshine Cleaning,” starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt; “Transsiberian,” starring Woody Harrelson; and “The Great Buck Howard,” starring John Malkovich, Tom Hanks and Colin Hanks.

“Some are in demand and will sell but won’t get the numbers they want,” said one specialty distrib. “Some don’t even have DVD elements.”

Many of these films have investors who are going to have to run numbers and look at the DVD market in order to recoup their costs.

“It’s a harbinger of things to come,” Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen said. “There’s a lot of production money in there. A glut of investments and movies in theaters all spring back to the high cost of marketing.”

According to Cohen, in order for a movie to gross $2.5 million in the U.K., a distrib will spend $300,000. In the U.S., that number is closer to $1.5 million. “With these little movies it’s about the relation of cost to value.”

Low-budget titles that screened well for auds and are expected to sell to smaller indie distribs are the critically hailed “Ballast,” which features an all-black cast; Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s portrait of a Dominican baseball player, “Sugar,” which HBO Films may be willing to sell to a distrib; the heartfelt drama “Birds of America,” which one buyer compared to “Junebug”; the prison thriller “The Escapist”; the Russian-language “Mermaid”; the erotic Spanish-language art film “Mancora”; the psychological thriller “The Broken”; the Iraq-home front drama “American Son”; the experimental Spanish-language sci-fi flick “Sleep Dealer,” and the digital domestic drama “Frozen River.” The German-language “The Wave” screened well but is considered by most distribs to be a strong candidate for a remake.

While a surprise may still pop, numerous other titles will likely take the slow train to a DVD release.