Studios seeing Sundance spots

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The Sundance Film Festival won't announce its full program until next week and won't screen its first film for nearly two months. But barely halfway through November, the buzz is starting over an unusually large number of high-profile titles that could command an ever higher set of prices.

"There are a lot of English- language movies with stars that I'm expecting to end up at the festival," one veteran acquisitions executive said. "And that means we're going to see not just indie and specialty buyers coming out to bid but people at the studio level as well."

The prospect of a star-heavy festival is dovetailing with the bigger force dictating all things in Hollywood these days: the writers strike. If the stoppage continues and studios don't like the number or quality of their existing scripts, the finished-film market is a good place to turn.

And with stars filling every corner of that market, it might, in fact, be the first place they turn.

Such movies as the Bill Pullman-Patricia Clarkson drama "Phoebe in Wonderland," Barry Levinson's Hollywood spoof and Robert De Niro starrer "What Just Happened?" and the Tom Hanks vehicle "The Great Buck Howard" are all potential Sundance movies on distributors' lips. (Execs caution, of course, that none of these movies is guaranteed entry to the festival, with Sundance known for its eclectic and sometimes surprising lineups.)

On Monday, Sundance announced its opening-night movie, Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges," a star-laden picture in its own right, with Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes toplining the movie about hit men in Belgium; the film already has distribution from Focus Features.

Sundance has been attracting top talent since stars began making more indie movies. But come January, the festival could resemble a studio lot.

Prestige movies with wide appeal also are expected to figure prominently, including Ewan McGregor's turn in the terrorist-themed "Incendiary," Plum Pictures' parent-child drama "Trucker" and Groundswell Prods.' adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" from director Rawson Thurber ("Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story)".

Comedies also are on the radar of execs who track indie productions: Among them are the Ben Kingsley/Mary-Kate Olsen pot comedy "The Wackness" and "Sunshine Cleaning," a production from indie banner Big Beach, which had a Sundance success in 2006 with another title containing the word "Sunshine."

Studios are a lot more willing to drop money in the seven- or even eight-figure range than their indie counterparts; though astronomical by festival standards, those fees are slight compared to what studios normally spend to produce a picture.

Seasoned festivalgoers recalled the 2005 edition, when Tom Freston, then of Viacom, flew in to Park City as what was then Paramount Classics made its $9 million pickup of Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow."

Of course that movie, often held up as an exemplar of a Sundance overbuy, might end up serving as a cautionary tale for acquisition-happy studio execs this year.

Still, experts say it's not just the offerings but the number of buyers changing this year's equation.

There are the wild cards, like the Weinstein Co., which jumped back into the game last year with several acquisitions and co-purchases and often could be counted on for a statement buy.

If newer players like the rejigged Paramount Vantage helped make last year a seller's dream (the specialty division paid $8 million for the quirky British film "Son of Rambow"), the entree of such self-financed operators as Summit and Senator could make for an even more frenzied festival this year.

But festival watchers note that new buyers might have a selective effect on purchase prices. "Some of these new companies need only one or two movies," one exec said. "The prices will skyrocket for those, but how many bidders will there be for a midlevel movie, the one that's only going to make $4 million or $5 million?"

The recent boxoffice performance of art house films mig ht also have a sobering effect on buyers. In addition to the much-discussed phenomenon of flailing fall fare, last year saw a host of documentaries go for seven figures at Sundance, including Sony Pictures Classics' "My Kid Count Paint That" and ThinkFilm's "In the Shadow of the Moon." But docus have had a choppy time at the boxoffice this year, potentially cooling what has long been a hot Sundance category.

A number of divisions might also go a different route with the Park City festival, using it as a launching pad the way Searchlight and Picturehouse did last year for such movies as "The Savages" and "Rocket Science," respectively.

Overture's Toronto pickup, "The Visitor," is among the movies expected to get a spot at the fest, and the new label could use it as a platform to launch its April release.

Gregg Goldstein contributed to this report.
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