Sundance 2013: Why Big-Ticket Stars Don't Guarantee Big Sales

1:00 PM PST 01/16/2013 by Daniel Miller
From left: Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Biel, Steve Carell and Amanda Seyfried

After high-priced acquisitions starring Tobey Maguire, Bruce Willis and Robert De Niro flopped at the box office, movie buyers are being more cautious than ever.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Scarlett Johansson. Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Naomi Watts. Shia LaBeouf. Rooney Mara. Ashton Kutcher.

This year's Sundance Film Festival lineup is jam-packed with stars, many of whom are poised to again turn Park City into a snowy, stateside version of Cannes' Croisette. But when movie distributors get down to business in the condos and hotels around Main Street, the question they'll increasingly confront is: How much do stars actually matter in Sundance movies?

For the past half-decade or so, big-name actors have been lured to Sundance fare -- in part because independent projects often offer meaty roles that studio films don't. But whereas a few years ago having a star in your film might have drummed up interest and increased the sale price, buyers and sellers say the climate has changed. (Consider The Weinstein Co.'s roughly $7.5 million purchase of the Tobey Maguire drama The Details in 2011, which was quietly dumped in theaters in November and took in just $63,595.)

Yes, there will be more stars at this year's festival, which runs Jan. 17 to 27, but their impact on the sales market could be subdued. "It can be a blessing or a curse -- it really depends on the film," says Arianna Bocco, senior vp acquisitions and production at IFC Films, which last year acquired several movies without big stars, including Sleepwalk With Me, Liberal Arts and Simon Killer. "Depending on who the star is, it can bring a certain scrutiny or expectation. But at the same time, having somebody who is established can help with sales in terms of ancillary rights."

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Last year, a handful of Sundance films with notable casts made for splashy sales but later disappointed in theaters. Stephen Frears' Lay the Favorite, which stars Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones, was acquired by TWC for a little more than $2 million (domestic rights) and ultimately was released on VOD in the fall and given only a brief theatrical run, grossing $20,998. Red Lights, starring Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver, sold to Millennium Entertainment for slightly less than $4 million (domestic) and took in just $52,624 in a brief U.S. theatrical run. CBS Films paid about $2 million for Bradley Cooper's The Words and made a big advertising commitment, but when the film opened in September in a whopping 2,800 theaters, it grossed just $11.8 million.

"I think the stars matter to a certain extent because I will always go see that movie as a buyer at the festival -- but that doesn't necessarily mean I am going to buy that movie," says Lia Buman, executive vp acquisitions for FilmDistrict, which last year picked up Safety Not Guaranteed, whose biggest star was lesser-known Aubrey Plaza of NBC's Parks and Recreation. "When I go to Sundance, I am looking for a film that is going to connect with audiences."

Of course, the breakout hit of last year's festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild, featured a cast of unknowns. Fox Searchlight acquired domestic rights to Beasts for about $1 million, and the film has grossed $11.2 million to date and picked up four Oscar nominations, including best picture.

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Yet the big stars still generate big interest, and some of the festival's buzziest acquisition titles are those with brand-name casts. Take U.S. dramatic competition film Ain't Them Bodies Saints, about a young outlaw couple, which stars Mara and Casey Affleck and is said by sources to be among the hottest titles at the festival. Also attracting interest from buyers is Premieres section film Don Jon's Addiction, which stars Gordon-Levitt (making his directorial debut) as a modern-day Don Juan alongside Johansson and Julianne Moore. Other notable acquisition titles featuring stars include Before Midnight (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy) and The Way, Way Back (Steve Carell), among others.

Sales agent Kevin Iwashina of Preferred Content believes that in years past, having a star might have made a title seem special, but now, when so many projects feature big names, you often need a star "in order to be part of the studio and specialty distributor discussion." (Among the films Iwashina is repping is the January Jones-Ed Harris starrer Sweetwater.) "Precise execution and a unique concept are key if a filmmaker casts less-recognizable actors," he says. "But generally, in order to secure the highest level of theatrical distribution, movie stars are the most crucial element."

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Stars also can be incredibly important to the VOD market, which is becoming a significant factor as distribution platforms diversify. The rise of video-on-demand as a legitimate outlet for Sundance films -- both 2011 Sundance hit Margin Call and 2012's Arbitrage relied on distribution via services such as iTunes and pay-per-view TV channels to reach wide audiences -- disrupted the traditional sales market in recent years. Don't expect anything different this year. And this means sales agents, more than ever, must be deliberate when considering offers that rely on different distribution models. "An emerging dilemma in the world of Sundance buying right now is whether the person selling a film is making the right choice for the movie," says Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics.

Joining such traditional Sundance buyers as Sony Classics and Magnolia Pictures is new distribution company A24, which was started in 2012 by Oscilloscope Laboratories co-founder David Fenkel. Several sales agents say they expect A24 to be a player, though it is worth noting that many felt that new company LD Distribution would be a major buyer at the last year's festival and it bought only one film -- the thriller Black Rock.

Despite alluring A-list talent in the lineup, some sales agents say they expect deal volume to be commensurate with recent years, making for a healthy but not overly exuberant market. And with numerous distribution options to consider in nearly every negotiation, dealmaking could be more complex. Says sales agent Graham Taylor of WME, "It will feel more like chess than checkers."

Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @DanielNMiller

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