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Do buzzy Sundance titles mean indie biz is healthy?

Big deals for 'Way, Way Back' and 'Don Jon's Addiction' show commercial promise

PARK CITY, Utah

The script called for small upfront payments, day-and-date VOD pickups and leisurely negotiations. But a funny thing happened on the way to Sundance: John Cooper and Trevor Groth programmed a boffo festival that has buyers wheeling and dealing more vigorously than at any other edition of the fest in recent memory, leading to soaring prices, big spending, wide-release commitments and the return of the Park City all-nighters.

Fox Searchlight’s early Tuesday morning deal for “The Way, Way Back,” which enjoyed a roof-raising premiere and ovation the night before at the Eccles Theater, came with a $10 million minimum guarantee that includes hefty theatrical and P&A commitments. Pic was said to have had at least seven offers at one point, and deal could wind up rivaling that of “Little Miss Sunshine” as one of the biggest in Sundance history.

It was the most recent in a string of seven-figure deals — five in all — that came with the promise of a healthy run on bigscreens. Both “Don Jon’s Addiction” (Relativity) and “Austenland” (Sony) got upfront money in the $4 million dollar range; the Weinstein Co. picked up “Fruitvale” for a reported $2.5 million; and upstart A24 made its Sundance debut count with a roughly $1.5 million purchase of crowdpleaser “The Spectacular Now.” Things are so robust that major agencies already anticipate selling out completely, and small-to-midsize distribs are being priced out.

“The prices are crazy,” said one acquisitions exec, “to the degree that they don’t make sense.”

The reason, says former ICM international and indie film topper and Sundance stalwart Hal Sadoff, is that indies are rising to fill the niche the studios have all but abandoned. “It is a very interesting time for the independent film industry, demonstrating what we’ve been talking about for years, which is that the studios are focusing on big-budget, tentpole films and not interested in producing and financing low to moderately budgeted projects,” said Sadoff, who had just flown home to Los Angeles. “However, if the studios have the opportunity to acquire a film at a festival that has a recognizable cast and they believe has the potential to reach a broad audience, it is worth it to them because they probably would not have been able to make the film at that price point and they don’t have to take on production risk.”

Interestingly, none of the major Sundance deals so far have been for the day-and-date VOD/theatrical formula that was widely hailed pre-fest as the future of the indie business model. But as the biggest titles come off the table, those deals will start to close.

“We’ve been saying the people who are talking about VOD as if it’s replacing traditional theatrical are wrong,” said Micah Green, co-head of the film finance group at CAA, which repped the sale of “The Way, Way Back.” “It depends on the movie. There is still a very healthy market for commercial theatrical movies: In the case of ‘Don Jon’s Addiction,’ that’s being wide-released like a studio-type movie; in the case of ‘The Way, Way Back,’ it’s a huge deal obviously, but that’ll be platform-released in the way that Searchlight does; and then for a lot of other movies here, they’ll be released under that ‘Bachelorette’ and ‘Arbitrage’ model because it suits them.”

Lionsgate/Roadside, which saw strong returns for Sundance pickups “Margin Call” and “Arbitrage,” has been in the running for several titles but has yet to come away with one.

Buyers agree that the sheer number of films with commercial viability has been a pleasant surprise, with spirited audience reactions and lasting buzz. Another handful of available titles could go for $1 million or more, and that’s just among those that have already screened. Though screenings are winding down, a few titles such as “Lovelace” and “Anita,” have the potential to pop.

While the enthusiasm has been great for the mood in Park City, whether the goodwill carries over to the box office is cause for some concern. Several buyers who have yet to pick up a film are lamenting the high prices that are being paid — and now asked — for titles they might otherwise have a shot at.

Groth and Cooper insist that they never favor one flavor of movie over the other; being more “commercial” is by no means a ticket to Sundance. And yet for Cooper’s fourth year as fest director, his team has selected an attractive bunch of films for buyers.

“I think we just did what we always do: We are very rigorous in our selection process, and we really are focused on finding the very best of what’s out there,” Cooper said. “We’ve thought the artistic level has been really high. I have a saying: “Good is good, and good sells. We feel like the quality just keeps going up every year.”

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