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Sundance forecast: Flurry of activity

No Premiere movies arrive with distrib deals in place

The Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday in Park City, Utah, where half of Hollywood will brave the cold to discover a fresh crop of indie features and thought-provoking documentaries.

Though last year’s high-profile sales produced mixed results at the box office, a Sundance launch also brings awards attention and potential career boosts down the line: Titles including “Like Crazy,” “Take Shelter,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Margin Call” garnered Indie Spirit nominations and other kudos and remain in the awards mix. “Margin Call” was one one of the fest’s bigger success stories, taking in more than $5 million at the domestic office and $4-5 million from its game-changing VOD release.

This year’s lineup marks a first in Sundance’s history, as none of the Premiere movies arrive with distribution in place, so there will be plenty of pics to whet buyers’ appetites.

Buyers and sellers alike predict a flurry of activity, especially considering Sundance’s sunnier slate this year, with comedies “Bachelorette” and “Celeste and Jesse Forever” expected to be among the top acquisition titles. Provided audience reception is warm, bidding wars could break out over Stephen Frears’ “Lay the Favorite,” starring Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis and Vince Vaughn, or Rodrigo Cortes’ “Red Lights,” which stars Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy and Elizabeth Olsen, who returns to Park City after being the toast of last year’s fest.

Each section boasts a lineup full of promising films searching for distribution, but if there’s one group that stands out, it’s the Midnight movies. Sundance has a terrific track record when it comes to its Midnight movie lineup, and this year offers no shortage of possible breakouts, with only one film — “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” — coming to the fest with domestic distribution in place. Other Midnight titles gathering buzz include “V/H/S,” “Grabbers” and “Excision,” which early viewers are calling extremely disturbing.

Outside of the Midnight lineup, Sundance seems to be keeping things light this year.

More acquisition titles gathering steam include Michael Mohan’s “Save the Date” and Jamie Travis’ “For a Good Time, Call…,” written by and starring Seth Rogen’s wife Lauren Miller as well as David Duchovny starrer “Goats” and Julie Delpy’s “2 Days in New York.”

Three films in the Next section are gathering buzz, especially Destin Cretton’s “I Am Not a Hipster,” which Paradigm is selling, and “28 Hotel Rooms,” starring Chris Messina (“Away We Go”).

In the World Documentary Competition, nearly everyone Variety spoke to mentioned “The Imposter,” for which A&E is already onboard. Pic centers on a young Frenchman who convinces a Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who went missing for three years.

Likewise, in the World Dramatic Competition, Kieran O’Rourke’s “Wish You Were Here,” starring rising Aussie thesps Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer, is considered a must-see for festgoers.

Three other films in the lineup have significant commercial aspirations, including Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister,” Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights” and Gareth Evans’ “The Raid,” which Sony Pictures Classics acquired after it rocked Toronto fest auds. Actioner is already being prepped for an English-language remake by Sony’s Screen Gems label.

The documentary competition includes works by veteran filmmakers such as Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) and Kirby Dick (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”), who are offering “The House I Live In” and “The Invisible War,” respectively.

Lauren Greenfield’s “The Queen of Versailles” already stirred up pre-festival controversy with a defamation lawsuit, while “Me @ The Zoo” star Chris Crocker is no stranger to controversy himself, as he’s best known for his impassioned defense of Britney Spears that was viewed online millions of times.

Two other documentaries are provoking interest: Marius A. Markevicius basketball doc “The Other Dream Team,” which chronicles the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic hoops team led by former NBA star Sarunas Marciulionis, and Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes’ “We’re Not Broke,” which examines how major conglomerates wiggle out of paying taxes to the U.S. government.

African-American casts highlight Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” and Sheldon Candis’ “Luv,” both of which are said to feature potential breakout performances, albeit from thesps of opposing ages. TV veteran Clarke Peters, who played Det. Lester Freamon on HBO’s “The Wire,” stars as a preacher in Lee’s pic, while young thesp Michael Rainey Jr. was discovered after learning to speak fluent Italian for his debut film, “Un altro mondo.”

Sundance regular John Hawkes, who broke out in Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and went on to star in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” returns with “The Surrogate,” which also marks the return of Helen Hunt.

Midnight madness

“Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” is the only straight comedy in the Midnight section and was snagged by Magnolia Pictures months before it was accepted into Sundance. While Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareham’s brand of comedy isn’t for everyone, Magnolia will be looking to capitalize on the massive fanbase of the duo’s cult TV show, “Time and Eric’s Awesome Show.”

Four horror films fill out the Midnight lineup, including Katie Aselton’s “Black Rock,” “The Pact,” with Casper van Dien and promising thesp Caitie Lotz; and Ricky Bates’ “Excision.” Pic features an abortion scene rumored to be “controversial,” to say the least.

Anthology film “V/H/S” is perhaps the most buzzed-about entry, though buyers predict it will be a tricky sell despite stemming from the leading names in the next generation of horror, including Ti West (“The Innkeepers”) and “You’re Next” helmer Adam Wingard.

Jon Wright’s horror-comedy “Grabbers” offers the type of high-concept material that could spark remake interest — when aliens invade an island of the coast of Ireland, its inhabitants discover that getting drunk is the only way to survive.

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