Sundance shoppers beware

Signs point to another feverish buying spree

Buyer beware: acquiring a movie at Sundance can be hazardous to your fiscal health.

Sundance 2007 will go down in history as the most frenzied seller’s market ever. It was also the year that yielded the worst box office results on record. Distribs such as Focus Features, Miramax Films and Picturehouse can be grateful that they went home empty-handed.

Clearly, the sellers made out like bandits, clocking astronomical sales of $53 million on 20 titles. Given paltry box office grosses of $34 million on the 14 titles that did get released, you’d think that buyers would face this year’s annual mating dance in 2008 with some trepidation. Certainly the price for documentaries, horror pics and dour Iraq downers will likely drop.

But history may repeat itself. With a batch of titles unspooling between Jan. 17 and 27 such as the comedy “The Wackness,” with Ben Kingsley as a drug-addled shrink; “American Son,” starring Nick Cannon as a young Marine on leave; Christine Jeffs’ “Sunshine Cleaning,” featuring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt; and Barry Levinson’s Hollywood comedy “What Just Happened,” with Robert De Niro, signs are pointing to another feverish buying spree.

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But, fest director Geoff Gilmore warns, “We will see how they play.”

With hungry deep-pocket players Summit and Overture in the mix, Sundance could again see robust sales, or even something akin to 2929 Entertainment’s sale of “We Own the Night” at Cannes to Columbia Pictures for $11.5 million. And even though studio specialty distribs such as Paramount Vantage and Sony Pictures Classics have been investing heavily in their own production, they are all looking to fill holes in their 2008 slates.

“You have more distributors, fewer movies and a strike,” points out Paramount Vantage co-president Nick Meyer.

Due to the ongoing Writers Guild strike, big-studio acquisitions execs will join the hunt for the most commercially accessible titles. Concurrent L.A. screenings for key studio decision-makers are expected.

“This year prices may be higher because of the strike,” says Picturehouse president Bob Berney, who is seeking more pick-ups to replace the titles he will no longer get from partner HBO Films, which is withdrawing from the too-risky theatrical business. “Fest fever can kill you. Some distribs may try to spread out their slates, but that’s too logical, realistic and makes too much sense. People will start buying.”

More equity investors are financing low-budget indie pics in the hope that a hefty Sundance sale will deliver sweet returns. More Sundance films lack distribution than ever, but they still pact with publicists and sales reps such as John Sloss’ Cinetic Media and agencies CAA, UTA, Endeavor and William Morris (often repping their clients’ projects) to land a distribution deal.

In 2008, for example, Cinetic is repping 18 pics, while CAA has 16. The fest front-loads the screenings on the first weekend — on prestigious Friday night, Jan. 18, four CAA titles are scheduled simultaneously — while decision-makers are still in town, which leads to a rush of screenings and post-screening bids.

“It’s a sellers’ world now,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Tom Bernard, who thinks the sellers are too close with Sundance programmers. “We’re shopping for Eddie Bauer titles at Bergdorf Goodman prices. It’s not the movies, it’s the hotbox of the selling. Sellers are whipping people into a frenzy. It’s not an organized way of doing business. It’s back-alley stuff. It’s speed dating, then you get married.”

Gilmore and his programming team saw 3,624 films for this fest and only accepted 125 of them. And, judging by last year, it’s doubtful that we will hear from most of them again. The Dakota Fanning “rape movie,” “Hounddog,” is a classic example of a much-hyped title that never saw a movie theater.

Gilmore always hopes his Sundance picks will sell as a sign that the fest booked good movies, yet he doesn’t want the event evaluated on the basis of sale prices. He spends three torturous weeks slotting the 125 features, knowing that he can’t make everyone happy.

“I’m not trying to be accommodating,” he says, “I am trying to help people get their movies seen. Not as many films are pre-sold as at other festivals. I get into tussles with the biggest of them. I don’t know how to fix this. It’s as fully fleshed a six-day rollout from opening Thursday to Wednesday as we can make it.”

Says one acquisitions exec trying to book her schedule, “Everyone is dying to find a good movie they can see at 11 a.m. A smart seller would want that screening.”

It is in the sellers’ interest to fan interest, get multiple buyers vying for a project, boost the price and push for a quick sale. A now-familiar scenario sees buyers lining up in the wee hours outside Deer Valley condos to make their 20-minute pitches to win a deal. In the heat of the Sundance chase, serious considerations of market playability often go by the wayside.

Producer Lynette Howell, who sold “Stephanie Daly” and “Half Nelson” at previous fests, is selling “Phoebe in Wonderland,” starring Patricia Clarkson and Elle Fanning, with Endeavor and UTA.

“It’s about getting people into the first screening so everyone sees it at the same time,” she says. “You want more than one buyer to have some kind of auction to drive the price up and get a quick sale and close before everyone’s back in L.A. Sometimes getting the best distributor is better than taking the best deal on the table. But I have financiers who may override that.”

While Bernard argues for showing more films in advance of the fest, Sloss insists that seeing films with an audience is crucial.

“Sundance is an event for people who love movies,” he says, “and it’s the largest market for selling North American movies. The time-honored tradition of selling is about getting people excited. Maximizing the value of something is not a sin.”

Groundswell prexy Michael London says “Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” which he is selling with CAA, would lose some of its “hype-factor” if it screened pre-fest in L.A.

“There’s no substitute for seeing it with an audience for the first time,” says London, who is happy with his Sunday night slot. “We’re in the right group, but we’re not the first girl at the prom. Friday and Saturday nights are caught up in hysteria about what they sell for.”

London has no intention of getting caught up in the bid hysteria. “It looks like people work for years on creating something they believe in creatively and artistically and throw it in the sausage grinder with 18 other movies. The system is based less on merit and true value than personality and salesmanship and hysteria. You don’t find the company best equipped to find an audience at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night in Park City; it’s who positions themselves to win an auction. It’s important for us not to maximize short-term value at the expense of the long-term future of the movie.”

Judging from last year’s results, filmmakers are not always well-served when the release plan for the film is not necessarily the first order of business. And distribs that overpay for bragging rights to a movie often wind up with a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

Paramount Vantage, which has been investing heavily in its own productions, has yet to open either of its big-ticket Sundance buys. In last year’s most heated sale, Celluloid Dreams sold most of the world rights for “Son of Rambow” to Vantage prexy John Lesher for $7.5 million. Since then the pic has been mired in legal wrangling over the right to use the title and film clips; Vantage’s settlement with “Rambo” rights holder Carolco laid off some of the acquisition costs. Vantage will release the pic in May, following this month’s opening of the Sylvester Stallone “Rambo” sequel.

In a package deal, Lesher also paid $3 million for the urban step-dance pic “How She Move,” which goes out wide Jan. 25, one year later. Vantage insists that this was always its plan.

“The jury is still out on last year,” Par Vantage’s Meyer says.

Warner Independent’s dark David Gordon Green
drama “Snow Angels” and Magnolia’s horror pick-up “The Signal” are among several 2007 buys still to open in 2008.

Fox Searchlight, which surprised everyone with its two sleeper Sundance hits “Waitress” and “Once,” could yet deliver a third, “La misma luna,” which opens March 19. Searchlight and partner Harvey Weinstein paid $5 million for world rights to the poignant border drama.

While Searchlight, which boasts rich international deals that help support all-out domestic marketing campaigns, paid $4 million for the world rights for “Waitress,” “Once” was a low-key end-of-fest pick-up for less than $1 million that several distribs had circled cautiously. But even Searchlight handled horror tweener “Joshua,” which it acquired for $4 million, as a quickie July release en route to DVD: it grossed just $482,000.

Last year, vet Sundance player Weinstein, proclaiming that he was back in the acquisition hunt, helped to drive up prices as he went on an aggressive buying spree. Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate partnered on acquiring worldwide rights to the feminist horror comedy “Teeth” for $750,000, but after testing the pic, kept pushing back the release date and eventually gave the film to Lionsgate specialty subsid Roadside Attractions, which will release the pic Jan. 18.

Weinstein Co. and First Look nabbed the world rights for actor-director Justin Theroux’s hotly contested “Dedication” for $4 million. But when the romantic comedy opened Aug. 24, it scored poor reviews and grossed a mere $93,000. The only pic Weinstein acquired on its own (paying $4 million for worldwide rights) was “Grace Is Gone,” starring John Cusack.

While Sundance docs are expected to be strong this year, it is unlikely that they will command last year’s prices. A once-robust documentary market misled buyers into overpaying for a slew of docs, none of which performed to expectations.

Sony Pictures Classics was disappointed on its $1.8 million purchase of “My Kid Could Paint That,” which earned just $216,000.

“Gone are the days when you could acquire a movie primarily for theatrical release,” says SPC’s Barker, who has been financing more pictures such as Errol Morris’ Abu Ghraib documentary “Standard Operating Procedure.” “Theatrical is a very dangerous marketplace. It costs a lot in marketing to keep a film on screens. You have to think about DVD, TV and ancillary components.”

Also targeted for eventual DVD sales was ThinkFilm’s poorly reviewed “The Ten.” The doc specialist also plunked down $2 million for the well-reviewed astronaut pic “In the Shadow of the Moon,” which grossed only $1.1 million despite his most energetic marketing efforts.

“It was a terrible year for non-fiction,” says ThinkFilm theatrical exec Mark Urman, who also chased popular Sundance doc “Crazy Love.” “The market was flooded with too many indifferent doc titles. They were omnipresent, no longer an alternative. It’s still not the sexiest of genres. Like everything else one needs crop rotation.”

Urman expects this year’s Sundance docs to grab their biggest audience on television.

2929 president Marc Butan, whose “What Just Happened” is expected to sell for a studio-level number, insists that he wants “to find the right plan to put ‘What Just Happened’ out the right way. Getting money back is nice, but in this market you need someone who knows how to handle the movie, as well as being able to write a big check.”