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TV networks have wallets out at Sundance

Film deals loom for 'Don Jon's Addiction,' 'Spectacular Now,' 'Austenland'

PARK CITY, Utah

It won’t be long before the usual suspects at the Sundance Film Festival — Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, the Weinstein Co., et al. — begin making splashy headlines, with agents mulling multiple offers on hot acquisitions titles “Don Jon’s Addiction,” “The Spectacular Now” and “Austenland” after a packed weekend of screenings.

But while visions of theater marquees dance in the heads of every filmmaker here, and VOD is hailed ad nauseam as the hero of the indie business model, television has been quietly creeping into the festival, which is increasingly being used as a promotional platform — and in many cases, a pipeline filler — for the smallscreen.

Participant Media is aggressively shopping for titles to complement the original programming it’s cooking up for its forthcoming TV network, which launches in August. The Sundance Channel is using home-court advantage to promote its new series “Rectify” and “Top of the Lake,” both of which screened and had press events here.

And as usual, the big cablers — HBO, Showtime and the like — have execs here looking at films alongside the theatrical buyers.

Showtime closed one of the fest’s earliest deals, nabbing exclusive broadcast rights to the rock doc “History of the Eagles,” which the cabler plans to bow next month. AMC Networks-owned Sundance Selects also closed a deal in the early stretch, acquiring North American rights to Nick Ryan’s mountain-climbing doc “The Summit” (no release date has been set, but a guarantee of a theatrical run was one of the deal points).

Another suitor for “The Summit” was CNN Films, which is making its debut as a Sundance buyer this year. Launched in October, the production and acquisitions unit of CNN Worldwide announced on Friday three new projects that the cable news channel will air later this year. It has two execs in Park City eyeing more titles.

And on Sunday, HBO Documentary Films acquired “Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer.”

Showtime’s “Summit” deal was repped by Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun, who noted that the intersection of television and film is working both ways.

“Some of these players who have roots in television are beginning to embrace theatrical,” Braun said, noting that A&E and History have also emerged as bona-fide buyers for feature documentaries. But Participant, which intends to buy as many as 200 feature docs in the coming year, figures to be among the big players.

“Participant is one of the more exciting developments out there,” Braun said. “We can’t wait for them to launch the TV network in August, but we’re already starting to talk with them about stuff.”

Participant CEO Jim Berk said his acquisitions team is looking for titles that can work theatrically, just on its TV network or both.

“With the TV side, our focus is on content that is commercial, socially relevant and skews younger, in the 18-34 range,” Berk said. “With all of these multiplatform rights and ancillary revenue streams, it’s what’s driving some of the smaller releases to make sense. The overall impact is going to be a net positive.”

Driving home the trend, Sundance programmed a television- and online-focused panel on Saturday that featured Richard Linklater, Justin Lin, “Enlightened” co-creator Mike White and “Top of the Lake” director Jane Campion. Linklater said that when movie projects are struggling to find financing, more filmmakers are considering the TV series option; Lin suggested that studios’ appetite for tentpoles is driving more quality adult drama to TV.

On the theatrical side, acquisitions were off to the usual slow start, but a rush of deals for major titles was imminent. As of late Sunday afternoon, none of the major acquisitions titles had closed, but word of negotiations was all over Park City, particularly on Saturday night, after highly positive reactions to screenings of “Toy’s House” and “Fruitvale,” the latter of which was attracting interest from a major studio as well as several mid-sized distributors.

The night before, Sundance went nuts for “Don Jon’s Addiction,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut about a porn-addicted Lothario from New Jersey. Offers from several major players came in fast, including an initial $2 million bid from the Weinstein Co. that was turned down. Like “Fruitvale,” “Don Jon’s Addiction” was attracting attention from Hollywood studios and more than half a dozen other major players.

Multiple acquisitions execs expressed concern about overpaying for the pic, but to do so could potentially put the winner into a long-term relationship with Gordon-Levitt, who’s poised to emerge from Sundance as a sought-after multihyphenate in the Ben Affleck mold. Gordon-Levitt would go a long way to raise the profile of a Relativity or Lionsgate in terms of being seen as an auteur-friendly studio. Deal was expected to close Monday.

Stephenie Meyer’s producing debut “Austenland” was also well on its way to a deal with a midsize distrib; though sales rep UTA said a handful of bidders were still in play, it was widely believed that the number of suitors was down to one, with early talks under way.

Other action focused on “The Spectacular Now” and “Toy’s House,” a pair of coming-of-age stories that were entertaining multiple offers. Deals for both were expected to close in the coming days.

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