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Sundance: Sales Are Booming, but Will Filmgoers Respond?

Robert Redford opened this year’s Sundance by underscoring how the annual film festival, which he started 31 years ago, was about embracing diversity and change, two qualities that often slip through the cracks of Hollywood’s studio system. It was a refreshing message against a backdrop of a business that saw ticket sales drop by more than 5% in 2014.

Indeed, in the snow-covered streets of Park City, it didn’t look like the movie business had gone cold. Buyers acknowledge that Sundance inspired passionate bidding wars and marked enthusiasm for releasing innovative stories on the bigscreen. A number of competing newer distributors such as the Orchard, Amplify Releasing and A24 helped drive prices up, even as digital players like Amazon and Netflix have yet to land a high-profile sale.

But all this buying fever doesn’t necessarily guarantee profits. No Sundance acquisition from 2014 made more than $8 million theatrically, and the highest-grossing festival title, “Boyhood,” which drew $24.9 million in receipts, was released by financial backer IFC. The reason the prices have climbed isn’t that moviegoers are embracing arthouse pictures with greater fervor; the bull market is due to the presence of the added players, hunting for product in an effort to prove themselves in the ever-changing landscape of the movie business.

Even before Sundance officially started, buyers didn’t waste any time, snapping up “Results” (Magnolia) and “Mistress America” (Fox Searchlight). The biggest Sundance deal as of Wednesday was that for “Brooklyn,” which sold to Fox Searchlight for $9 million. The tale about an Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) who arrives in New York in 1952 is already been buzzed about for next year’s Oscars (thanks to a script adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Toibin). The distributor also landed “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” dubbed as this year’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” for $6 million and a percentage of the backend.

Open Road Films (domestic) and Sony (international) picked up “Dope,” a high-school comedy in the tradition of John Hughes, for $7 million, after a heated bidding war against the Weinstein Co., Focus Features and others.

The strength of the market is evident in the prices. Last year’s top seller, “The Skeleton Twins,” fetched only $3.5 million from Roadside Attractions. Sundance 2015 has already seen several higher sales and a smattering of other deals in that price range, including IFC Film’s $3 million bid for “The D Train” (one of the biggest deals the company has ever made) and Relativity’s $3 million buy of “The Bronze,” the raunchy, opening-night comedy about a washed-up Olympic gymnast (Melissa Rauch).

This edition of the festival is “now back to being a seller’s market,” says Arianna Bocco, senior VP of acquisitions at Sundance Selects/IFC Films. Adds Rena Ronson, co-head of UTA’s Independent Film Group: “This year was so different. People seemed to jump early and on movies they like right away.”

That might have been a result of better product in the market, as festgoers noted the mainstream potential for many of the Sundance favorites. “I don’t think there’s any shortage of quality movies at the festival this year,” says Paul Davidson, senior VP of film and television at the Orchard, which landed “The Overnight” for $4 million.

The Orchard, which has been around since 1997 as a music sales company, is now expanding into film distribution and wanted to make a big splash at Sundance. “We really feel like we found a gem at the festival,” Davidson says. “We’re super-excited to hit the ground running and release the movie.”

The sex comedy, starring Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman, will open on June 19.

Many of the filmmakers at Sundance also feel that the indie business is booming again. “From the get-go, the general atmosphere has been more upbeat and more positive,” says John Battsek, producer of the Sundance documentary “Listen to Me Marlon.” “There are more ways of generating income for these films and now that means buyers see value across multiple platforms, which is good for acquisitions.”

As usual Sundance offered a berth for new voices. Director Sean Baker shocked audiences when he revealed in the end credits of “Tangerine,” a comedy about two transgender prostitutes, that his movie was shot entirely with an iPhone 5s. “It was less to do with me wanting to surprise the audience,” Baker says. “I’ll be very frank: If I heard a film was shot on the iPhone, I probably would be interested, but it wouldn’t be my first choice to see it in a theater.” The buzz from the premiere on Friday and stellar reviews led Magnolia to scoop up the title in a latenight deal on Monday.

Sundance veterans believe that the rise of video-on-demand and digital distribution are establishing more secure revenue streams for arthouse pictures. They insist that this year’s festival won’t be a repeat of such ’90s disasters as “The Spitfire Grill” and “Happy Texas,” which clinched big deals at Sundance only to bomb at the box office.

“It’s not like the old days where if one movie got sold it was a victory here,” says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “Every movie will end up somewhere, but there’s so many different types of people that are buying film. People are buying films for Netflix. They’re buying films for VOD. Studios are looking to fill slots with movies here. It’s the most diverse group of people walking the streets that I’ve ever seen.”

Jeff Deutchman, VP of acquisitions at Alchemy, which bought the Nicole Kidman drama “Strangerland” for more than $1 million, also agreed that the competition shaped the narrative of this year’s festival. “If you look at the way that films have been performing in the marketplace, there’s no massive indication there’s a bigger market for films than there was a year ago,” Deutchman says.

In an age where digital sales are beginning to outpace box office revenues for some films, the Sundance imprimatur carries weight. Apple’s iTunes, for instance, has a Sundance vertical, and most digital distributors lean heavily on a film’s festival bonafides in their marketing.

“It helps cut through the clutter,” says Nolan Gallagher, founder and CEO of Gravitas Ventures. “The name Sundance resonates with audiences.”

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