Sundance options spin modest returns

Filmmakers enter fest with better prospects, face tighter pursestrings

Many headed for Park City hope that the blizzard that has buried the indie biz has passed and that the forecast will be clear skies.

Some of the trends that began to shake up the biz more than 18 months ago — chiefly the dropoff of prices paid for product — have solidified into business as usual, but green shoots include the establishment of more small-scale distribs able to exploit niches more efficiently (e.g., Music Box, ATO Pictures, Oscilloscope), plus the growth of alternative distribution outlets such as VOD and digital delivery via Netflix and iTunes.

As a result, filmmakers have a better shot of getting their films sold — just at a smaller payoff.

After having seen steady biz come out of Toronto last year in the indie sector (look at IFC’s acquisition of “Super”; Sony Pictures Classics with “Barney’s Version”; and Weinstein Co.’s “Submarine”) coupled with B.O. momentum gained from pickups at last year’s Sundance (Focus’ $4.8 million pickup “The Kids Are All Right” has taken in $20.8 million domestically; “Winter’s Bone,” with $6.3 million domestically, scored fine figures from the coasts but earned most in the Midwest), the wind in buyers’ sails has turned from anxious to hopeful.

“I’m cautiously optimistic this year,” says Arianna Bocco, head of acquistions at Sundance Selects/IFC Films.

Fest observers expect to see buyers jumping on movies like Kevin Smith’s “Red State,” which is being sold with a “live auction” stunt, “Perfect Sense” with Ewan McGregor and closing-night film “The Son of No One,” toplining Channing Tatum and Al Pacino.

Bocco says that while the fest’s schedule this year seems “frontloaded” so buyers can see everything in the first weekend, navigating bidding wars isn’t a certainty. “We’re not necessarily going to get into bidding wars with the studios, but I do think sales agents need to suss out their position. Will they target one buyer or indeed try and navigate a bidding war?”

While prices have come down for pics, there’s still risk in overpaying for a perceived hot title.

Last year, upstart distrib Hannover House paid $2 million for “Twelve,” which it released last August to a domestic take of just under $200,000. Lionsgate plunked down $3.2 million for Ryan Reynolds starrer “Buried,” a high-concept genre-bender that took in just around $1 million domestically.

Some buyers (e.g., Roadside Attractions with opening-night film “The Music Never Stopped”) already jumped on some Sundance titles, picking up rights nearly three weeks before the fest began.

Studio insiders says that companies had started screening high-profile pics to get a leg up on an increased number of fest buyers. A bootlegged copy of Brit docu “Knuckle,” screening in the world cinema documentary competish, was rumored to have been leaked early to potential buyers who might be interested in purchasing remake rights.

“If the movie’s good, you could see things get a little crazy,” says one bizzer. “But I always go back to the number of buyers.”

Bocco adds that the past few years at Sundance have seen an increasingly international presence at what has typically been considered a domestic fest.

“Not all international buyers can afford to go, or will go, but the ones that do are being opportunistic. They’re looking for that ‘Winter’s Bone’ to fill their international needs, and if they’re at Sundance, they’ll be on the jump.”

Sony Pictures Classics co-topper Tom Bernard agrees, saying the fest’s flexible schedule could lead to more business.

“A lot of companies have woken up and realized the world has changed,” Bernard says. “Each (company) has something different to offer, but usually the cream of the crop is sold early and everyone else goes home. I think people are going to be much more realistic. There may be a headline buy, but I don’t know if there’s a movie out there for it yet.”

Last year, SPC snapped up domestic rights for “Animal Kingdom” at the close of the fest, and this year is set to screen Denmark’s foreign-language Oscar hopeful, Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World.”

“There’s always that perception of frontloading because buyers are going to be there, but you’ve also got some strong films toward the end,” says Rena Ronson, co-head of UTA Independent Film Group, “so it’s creating more complexities in terms of the sales process.”

UTA agent David Flynn adds that most fest product “is worthy of distribution,” thanks to sustainable budgets. “In previous years, there have been movies with varying budgets, but there was more money being thrown around,” Flynn notes. “This year there’s been a real focus on the movies that deserve to be made.”

Across the pond, Robert Walak, senior VP of worldwide acquisitions at Alliance Films, says all buyers are going to continue to be cautious of how much money they spend, and with Berlin so close, unnecessary pressure to fill slates isn’t at the top of the agenda.

“People are aware of Sundance scenarios where people lose their minds,” Walak says. “And people have learned that sometimes it’s easier to step out and maybe pick up in Berlin. I think people realize that if you can get a film for a good price, that’s great. Sundance is a great place if you’re a large indie to pick up titles for a sensible MG. You just have to make sure you keep your eye open for not-so-obvious titles that pop up.”

But Berry Meyerowitz, prexy and CEO of Phase 4 Films, which last year nabbed Dax Shepard romantic comedy “The Freebie” after a handful of majors circled the project, thinks there’s a cost-effective scenario ready to be played out.

Other streams

“Last year,” he notes, several films sold were not perceived as commercially viable “but they ended up finding an audience, and there was money for them, for many of them from ancillary.

“We’re looking at that angle. These days you’re not going to find something that fits everything or everyone, so everyone has to become more specialized. We hope to find films that are geared much more to DVD or digital as well as theatrical.”

Alternate distribution has helped hedge some pricey P&A costs, serving as an ideal fit for less commercial product.

WME Global topper Graham Taylor says most filmmakers aren’t willing to play a “wait-and-see” game when releasing their film.

“The reality is you’re not going to buy a movie for $5 million and then market it for $250,000,” he says. “What’s interesting about the nuance and range of these alternative deals is how do you show fiscal responsibility while hitting the widest audience?”

This year’s fest may not give a final answer, yet it seems most everyone is open to the question.

“Ultimately, filmmakers want to get their money back, but they also want to their movies to be seen,” Bernard says. “This particular year there’s more opportunity for your movie to be seen in the marketplace and be bought.”