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Sundance dealmaking takes new turns

'Kids,' 'Bone' gave hope to specialty buyers

Some things about Sundance remain the same — intermittent blizzards, all-night dealmaking, too many starry-eyed thesps in branded parkas. But as the indie biz struggles to find its equilibrium, the types of deals and the way they’re made is changing.

Oscar noms and solid box office for last year’s Sundance titles “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone” gave hope to specialty buyers, who in years past paid sky-high prices for pics that mostly didn’t pay off.

And while this year was busy on the buying front, distribs didn’t seem quite as excited by any one title and took plenty of time evaluating deals before making them.

Several new wrinkles surfaced on the specialty scene this year:

• Industryites vied for remake rights on projects. Fest proved a fruitful idea factory as docus that could be seen as a tough sell in their original format were picked up for remake rights.

Fox Searchlight, a hungry buyer this year with four pickups, nabbed remake rights to Philip Cox’s docu “The Bengali Detective,” while HBO teamed with Rough House Pictures’ partners Jody Hill, Danny McBride and David Gordon Green for remake rights to Ian Palmer’s “Knuckle.” HBO and Rough House plan to remake the bare-knuckle Irish fighter docu into a drama series for the network, signaling that good ideas for fiction projects are always in demand.

• TV-focused companies made tracks on Main Street, backing releases of a clutch of pics, mostly docus. The film arm of National Geographic took domestic theatrical rights to Kevin Macdonald’s YouTube experiment “Life in a Day.”

A few days before the fest unspooled, A&E IndieFilms picked up TV rights to the Park City at Midnight pic “Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel,” while HBO took all rights for James Marsh’s docu “Project Nim,” and HBO execs have been talking to possible theatrical partners. These types of deals were indicative of a healthier TV market propping up pics offered at the fest.

But, according to some insiders, a slew of docu titles with TV deals in place, including Ken Kesey’s “Magic Trip” and “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” could end up having limited appeal for buyers interested in theatrical rights.

• Slow and careful dealmaking: While the majority of buyers and sellers remained busy throughout — one indie said, “Everyone and everything is in play” — the mood on Main Street played as expected: cautiously optimistic.

One of the festival’s favorite titles, Irish laffer “The Guard,” saw one of the longest-gestating deals to close. Pic preemed on opening night, garnering interest from top players including Sony Pictures Classics, Summit, Magnolia Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn. UTA began fielding offers that night but didn’t close until nearly four days later, when it sealed the deal with SPC.

Most bizzers say the reason for the delay was the strong Irish brogue in which the dialogue is delivered. Sony Classics will end up relooping the film for U.S. auds.

• New models vs. old: When the struggle for a “Guard” deal heated up between Sony Classics and Magnolia, the decision was further delayed by producers trying to decided whether to go with the old arthouse model of selling just theatrical rights (SPC) or to go with companies utilizing hybrid theatrical/VOD distribution models such as Magnolia.

“Life in a Day” took the hybrid model a step further, with the user-generated film having its YouTube preem tonight simultaneously with its fest premiere, then opening in theaters on July 24.

Still, some buyers left Park City empty-handed, though most sought-after pics will screen for buyers in New York and L.A. in the coming weeks.

New players such as FilmDistrict and Relativity Media stayed quiet in Sundance. Both those distribs have a mandate for wide releases, which perhaps points to limited commercial prospects for this year’s Sundance lineup.

Active buyers like Searchlight and SPC are adept at platform releases — a common distribution model for tricky sells coming out of Sundance.

• No model at all? Kevin Smith revealed he would avoid distribs altogether when he gave the proverbial middle-finger to the Hollywood system by announcing his intentions to self-distribute “Red State.”

The stunt earned Smith plenty of headlines but also burned bridges.

Smith’s hot-headed rant in front of buyers and festgoers at “Red State’s” preem on Sunday likely will go down in Sundance history as yet another typical Sundance publicity stunt.

So, too, will helmer Lucky McKee’s Midnight preem of sadistic exploitation pic “The Woman,” which reportedly caused aud members to pass out, with one man’s rant against the pic outside the theater going viral on YouTube.

Whether or not Smith finds success with “Red State,” or a ballsy buyer takes a chance on “The Woman,” this year’s Sundance temperature certainly ran hotter.

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