Indie film world gets boost at Sundance

5:36 PM PST 01/27/2010 by Jay A. Fernandez, Gregg Goldstein

High-profile sales show market is healthy, if not in peak form

PARK CITY -- The independent films are all right.

High-profile sales of "The Kids Are All Right" to Focus Features and "Buried" to Lionsgate in the past few days have reassured industry watchers that the independent-film market is, if not in peak form, healthy enough.

But there is no question that the dealmaking at this year's Sundance, which concludes Sunday, reverted to what one producer with a film in play called a "rational approach." It's the start of a new decade, and patience and thoroughness have become the catchwords in the condos, theater lobbies and lounges here.

North American rights to "Buried" went for $3 million-$4 million plus a hefty P&A commitment. "Kids," Lisa Cholodenko's drama-tinged comedy, found a quick home after its packed enthusiastic Monday night screening at the Library Theatre. Focus picked up North American rights -- along with South Africa, the U.K. and Germany -- for nearly $5 million.

Immediately following the screening -- which reps from Focus, the Weinstein Co., Magnolia Pictures, Summit Entertainment and Fox Searchlight all attended -- interest in a theatrical release ran rampant. Two days after the screening, James Schamus' Focus sealed the deal with Bart Walker and John Sloss of Cinetic Media, who handled negotiations for the filmmakers.

The fest almost certainly will yield other deals. It might take time, but the enthusiasm for independent film and its sometimes electrifying surprises clearly is there. Reps from the above-named companies as well as Paramount, Sony Pictures Classics, Apparition and IFC have been busy negotiating even if many deals are still to be consummated.

"It was just a matter of time before there was going to be a festival that buyers were wildly enthusiastic about," said Rich Klubeck of UTA Independent Film Group, which landed the first big sale of the fest with the Ryan Reynolds thriller "Buried."

"There would've been an even greater number of sales had you not seen several entries financed by specialty divisions," Klubeck added, citing SPC's widely praised Nicole Holofcener feature, "Please Give," and Searchlight's Duplass brothers comedy, "Cyrus."

What has changed, drastically, are the economics and opportunities for exposure. And most everyone, especially sellers, has adjusted to that reality.

"We don't need to rush anything" is the pervading attitude among cautious buyers, said the producer, whose film has been fielding serious interest since Friday without a closed deal. "We need to turn every stone."

"There's more thought put into each film's ultimate marketability and less impulsiveness than in past years," UTA indie film co-head Rena Ronson said. "Distributors really want to be sure which platform is right for each film and if it will expand into a multiquadrant release for different audiences."

Buyers have been kicking the tires of "The Company Men," "happythankyoumoreplease," "The Tillman Story," "Splice," "Douchebag," "Catfish," "Winter's Bone" and "High School." But only a few more deals are expected to close before the fest ends.

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Much of the power structure was on its way out of the mountains by Wednesday, but dealmakers on both sides continue to explore methodically all options and permutations with multiple suitors/sellers and multiple potential distribution channels. Meanwhile, as the negotiations and offers limbo toward settlement, more screenings are being set up and DVDs passed around in Park City, Los Angeles and New York so that all buyers can see everything possible before committing.

The stability (or instability) of the distribution community remains a concern for sellers. They're mindful of the case of "Brooklyn's Finest," which CAA and WMA sold to Senator during last year's fest only to see that company fold. They repackaged the edgy drama for Overture Films, which might be facing restructuring of its own, though it has set the film for release in March.

Among pending deals, "Tillman," repped by CAA and Submarine, looks to be landing in Harvey Weinstein's lap. The Park City at Midnight stoner comedy "High School," which CAA and Parallel Media are handling, has at least one offer on the table.

The horror film "Splice," also repped by CAA, continues to inch toward a video buy (most likely Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group), coupled with a service deal from Apparition, Weinstein Co., Newmarket Films, First Look or Goldwyn.

The UTA-repped low-budget comedy "Douchebag" could find a home with one of three of the larger specialty distributors in light of the audience good will it earned.

"Hesher," "Welcome to the Rileys" and "The Extra Man" seem to be lower priorities for buyers at the moment.

The only other pickup to date is the Davis Guggenheim documentary "Waiting for Superman," which Paramount announced Thursday as the festival opened; it will be released as a Paramount Vantage title. But that arrangement was reached weeks earlier -- and the players' already had a successful, Oscar-winning collaboration on the release of Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth" in 2006.

The mantra of this new era seems to be: Good deals come to those who wait.
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