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Sundance: Buyers More Cautious But TV, Docs Heat Up

The importance of Sundance’s film marketplace and what’s considered “Sundance bait” depends on whether you’re asking a seller, distributor, director, producer, talent agent or the heads of the fest itself.

If this year’s market is a bit less frenzied, one reason (apart from 2014 pickups’ modest box office) might be that some of the best bait is being taken away before the fest. “Several buyers have been more aggressively pursuing pre-buys this year, so that they can avoid having to compete for titles at festivals,” says Micah Green, co-head of CAA’s film finance & sales group, which is repping titles including Keanu Reeves starrer “Knock Knock,” “Strangerland” and “Cop Car.”

Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Tom Bernard (whose “Whiplash” has earned $7 million worldwide, the biggest B.O. among last year’s pickups) agrees, saying pre-buys are a way distribs “are starting to empower themselves. A lot of people are showing films (before the fest), talking about what they can do for the film and trying to match it with the right distributor.” If you pre-buy, develop a marketing plan and manage the press you want initially vs. what you want for its release, he says, “you can launch a movie that will end up at the Oscars next year.”

Another reason for healthy sales expectations, CAA’s Green adds, is “the influx of distributors into the marketplace this year, and the remarkable success stories in both traditional and progressive releasing models.” He cites such new outfits as STX, Broad Green, Bleecker Street and Saban, along with traditional rollouts like last year’s premiere “Boyhood” and multiplatform releases such as “Snowpiercer.”

“There are a lot more specialty distributors and a lot of arguments about this: are we saturated?” says Mark Duplass, who’s coming to Sundance as the exec producer of three films — “The Overnight,” “Tangerine” and “The Bronze”  — under his Duplass Bros. Prods. label, with no announced distribs as yet. “I’m happy to have all these players, but it certainly drives down the prices. In 2015, if you have a really great movie, it might sell for $50,000 to a small distributor.”

Duplass embodies every phase of Sundance talent over the past decade: an indie filmmaker-actor who launched his career (2005’s “The Puffy Chair”) and biggest critical hits (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) at the fest before moving to TV for FX’s comedy “The League” and HBO series “Togetherness” that he and his brother Jay are launching. And in a move that may signal the future of Sundance sales, he’ll be shopping the animated series they produced and he voiced, “Animals,” showing two of 10 completed episodes in the Special Events section.

“I don’t know that people have made an entire series (to sell at a film fest) before. It’s incredibly risky because it’s more expensive to make episodes of a TV show than a movie,” he says.

Duplass sent word to TV and online networks right after New Year and says most of the major outlets will be at Sundance scouting talent. So will agencies, who’ve seen the fest’s marketplace for emerging artists change with the crowded landscape.

“There are occasionally directors in the Next category that come out of nowhere and don’t have representation, so it’s a bit like what the Competition category used to be in terms of spotting new talent,” says UTA agent Keya Khayatian (whose client Jared Hess is bringing “Don Verdean” to Premieres). “But it’s become so competitive that a lot of the agencies are incubating talent inside, signing people off of shorts or first scripts and putting their first movies together.”

Yet Sundance still has the power to make a career. Self-proclaimed “Sundance baby” Rodrigo Garcia, who made his 2000 debut here with “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” and returns this year with the Jesus Christ pic “Last Days in the Desert,” notes that he met his debut’s producer, Jon Avnet, in the Directors Lab, and that similar TV connections are being made in the new Episodic Story Lab.

Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun has ridden the growing wave of interest in docs with Sundance sales like “Searching for Sugar Man” and new titles like the daredevil doc “Being Evel,” and seen changes in deals along the way.

“In the past few years, a lot have included bumps on VOD where there used to be only box office bumps,” he says. “Certain players like Netflix potentially buy all (online) rights worldwide, a model that didn’t exist a couple years ago.”

It’s one reason he launched the Submarine Deluxe theatrical distrib label, reflecting another change in Sundance: the crowded, complex landscape has led some to self-release films.

Like Braun, Tim League comes to Sundance wearing two hats: as head of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain screening potential releases, and as head of his Drafthouse Films label looking for acquisitions. League mirrors many others when he notes that films with “reasonable sized stars attached” continue to be the key to VOD and online success. And like Braun, he’s found success with docs that allow “specific social media targeting and grassroots promotion,” noting that the right political doc is now an especially attractive draw.

“I think it’s a bit harder for quiet, quotidian American dramas,” says Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen, but adds that these these stereotypical “Sundance films” “usually weren’t the ones that went on to big glory. Most of the breakouts from Sundance have had name actors and commercial elements.”

He picked up the 2014 comedies “The Skeleton Twins” (with Lionsgate & Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, last year’s top sale at $3.5 million) and “Dear White People” (with Lionsgate). Like SPC’s Bernard, he says he’s just looking for “new voices and great movies.”

While the new crop of filmmaking talent will ultimately drive the definition of what “Sundance bait” is, no one will determine it more than fest director John Cooper and programming director Trevor Groth.

Cooper admits that cheap filmmaking technology has led to some disappointing submissions, but says that overall, “it seems like the quality goes up and up, and our decisions become harder.” He attributes this improvement over the past decade to filmmakers who are “so much more knowledgeable about this 30-year legacy of independent film, so they’re freer to approach things like genre.”

Then there’s television. “We’re definitely testing the water,” Cooper says of recent fest screenings of SundanceTV’s “Top of the Lake” and Amazon’s “Transparent.”

“It’s part of the reality of the creative film community, so we’re going to keep a very close eye on it.”
Citing screenings of “Animals” and the first of Andrew Jarecki’s six-episode HBO doc series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” Groth gives an even stronger hint of what “Sundance bait” could look like in the future: “It’s a whole new potential strand of programming that we could see develop over the years.”

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