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Sanity prevails at busy Sundance 2012

'Docile approach' proves good for biz after wild 2011

Everyone has been keeping their cool, meaning the right films have been going to the right distributors for the right price at Sundance.

The consensus at this year’s fest is that sanity has prevailed, with buyers taking care not to overspend and sellers waiting to carefully vet all offers before pulling the trigger.

“The cautiousness of distributors is providing for respectable deals to both buyers and sellers,” said Kevin Iwashina, whose Preferred Content sold genre pic “The Pact” on Thursday, has buyers interested in “28 Hotel Rooms” and recently screened “The End of Love” for acquisitions execs.

“From the deals I’ve seen, everyone’s satisfied,” Iwashina said. “When both sides are happy, everybody wins.”

Three of the biggest deals of the fest so far — all of which Variety first reported — included “The Surrogate,” which sold to Fox Searchlight for an estimated $6 million; psychological thriller “Red Lights,” which Millennium Entertainment picked up for $4 million; and Sony Pictures Worldwide and Samuel Goldwyn Films’ $2 million acquisition of “Robot & Frank,” slated for an awards-season release. Also getting deals in the $2 million range were Focus Features’ buy of “For a Good Time Call…” and Lionsgate/Roadside’s pickup of “Arbitrage.”

Bizzers ascribe the genteel pace of sales to two factors: Too many distributors got burned by overpaying for films during last year’s feeding frenzy; and in turn, no single buyer is creating anxiety by aggressively throwing huge wads of money at movies in the early goings.

Also aiding the cause: A deeper across-the-board understanding of how video-on-demand and digital distribution components of deals contribute to the revenue ultimate.

ICM’s Hal Sadoff, who repped sales for “Frank” and has the commercially skewing “Safety Not Guaranteed,” Jesse Eisenberg-starrer “Predisposed” and rapper Common vehicle “Luv” still in the market, said a sense of calm from both buyers and sellers has made it easier on everyone.

“With more caution in the market this year, distributors have had the opportunity to take the time and find the movies that are right for their model at the right price, he said. “The deals aren’t coming as fast as they did last year, but they are making a lot more sense.

Iwashina added, “Everybody went into the marketplace with at least a perfunctory understanding of where VOD platforms and digital distribution fit into the monetization equation. When buyers and sellers comprehend how revenues are being generated, everyone soon begins to understand the economic limitations and/or upside. It eliminates a lot of guesswork.”

“I didn’t believe in VOD at first, but it worked so well on ‘House of the Devil’ that I couldn’t argue with it,” said “V/H/S” co-director Ti West during a post-screening QandA. Having said that, West would prefer genre fans to see his movies theatrically. “We spend a lot of time meticulously crafting a movie to be seen in the theater, so I always prefer you to see it in the theater because that’s what we do.”

West’s co-director Joe Swanberg said he also sees an advantage to VOD, but hoped that “V/H/S” got a theatrical release, which it did on Wedneday night via Magnolia Pictures. “Usually I don’t care, but after seeing this movie here in the theater, this would be the first time I’d feel sad if it went straight to VOD.”

The lack of a consensus top film has also tempered the once-frenzied atmosphere. With a plethora of well received, quality movies, buyers can feel at ease that their preferred targets are no more or less desirable than the competition’s, and second-choice may be every bit as good as their first.

It all translates into a Sundance sales season that will extend well beyond the official close on Saturday.

“It was a different year in terms of sales,” said Gary Rubin of Cohen Media Group, which hasn’t made an acquisition, but is content to bide its time for now. “I think you’ll see activity in the weeks to come, but much less the week-of than last year.”

The programming efforts of Sundance director John Cooper and programming Trevor Groth have been universally praised for maximizing films’ exposure to buyers, making it easier for the most number of acquisitions execs to see as many films as possible.

“The films have played incredibly well; the audience reaction has been as great as it’s ever been,” Groth said.

But not all’s been sunny at Sundance 2012.

“There’ve been strange occurrences outside the festival that have put an imprint on what people will remember — the tragedy of Bingham Ray passing in particular,” Groth said. “When people look back at the 2012 fest, that’s what a lot of people will remember. What’s been great about the response to that is that Bingham, being who he was, and his passion about film, allowed people to still keep celebrating the films that were here. It’s been a very emotional year because of that.”

Ray died Wednesday at age 57 after suffering a stroke days before in Park City. A memorial that started just a few hours after the news broke began as a few dozen people, nearly all with tears in their eyes, and quickly grew into more than 200 prominent indie figures who raised a glass at the High West Distillery on Main to their departed friend, mentor and colleague.

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