While festgoers are enjoying unusually warm weather in Park City, the temperature on the acquisition front at this year’s Sundance Film Festival has been cool so far, with fewer deals taking longer to materialize and with smaller pricetags.
The hesitance among buyers comes from fewer overtly commercial films in play — and those that are, such as Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies” and Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here,” were quickly scooped up for distribution.
“It’s been a decidedly uncommercial festival,” lamented one company exec. “I’ve heard a lot of good things this year, but no one is talking the way they were talking about ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’ And in terms of dollars and cents, there is no ‘Don Jon.’”
Still, buyers and agents were already braced for what they expected might be a chilly festival based on the quirky-sounding lineup.
“The Sundance market is a subset of the independent market and generally encompasses the best of the smaller and more specialized projects,” said Micah Green, co-head of CAA’s film finance and sales group. “When a film pops out of Sundance and secures a wide release, or a high seven-figure MG, it is an anomaly.
“In contrast, we (CAA) are doing deals of that scale for independent films throughout the year on the more commercially oriented packages such as ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ and ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler,'” Green added.
Even the films that have played best so far this year, such as “Whiplash” and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” aren’t necessarily commercial slam-dunks. Sony Pictures Classics acquired “Whiplash” two days after the film’s opening night premiere for approximately $2.5 million; “Polar Bear” is still up for grabs.
Sales agents are looking to hold acquisition prices steady, hoping to encourage distributors to spend more on P&A.
The few deals to have closed include A24 buying the Keira Knightley starrer “Laggies” (with a pricetag in the $2 million range), as well as Magnolia’s pre-festival buy of Joe Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas,” toplining Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham. The most notable acquisition so far is perhaps Focus Features’ buy of the Kickstarter-funded “Wish I Was Here” for about $2.7 million, marking the company’s first acquisition since its restructuring and the ousting of former CEO James Schamus.
A number of other films have sparked interest among buyers, though deals are still pending.
The Midnight horror comedy “Cooties,” which features an ensemble led by Elijah Wood (who also produced the film), piqued interest among companies including Lionsgate, while Guantanamo Bay drama “Camp X-Ray,” with Kristen Stewart, drew interest early on, though a deal has yet to close.
Fox Searchlight, meanwhile, acquired Mike Cahill’s sophomore pic “I Origins,” after the company bought and released the director’s feature debut “Another Earth” in 2011. The acquisition price was about $3 million.
Producer Keith Kjarval said he’s been encouraged so far by this year’s Sundance slate. “From my perspective, I’m extremely happy with the different stories being told and that most filmmakers are adhering to the economics of independent film,” Kjarval said.
“Ruddlerless,” which stars Billy Crudup as a grieving father who starts his own rock band, cost just less than $5 million to produce. Likewise, another music-themed entry from a first-time director — Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” — was budgeted at $3.3 million.
Kjarval still believes there is room for optimism that deals may pick up, especially as the remaining few buzz titles premiere.
“Maybe the next couple of days will see a flurry of activity,” he said.