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Sundance: Cautious Optimism

Joe Anderson

Four trends to watch as more movies look for buyers, more buyers look for movies, and no one wants to overpay in Park City.

A year after one of the most hectic Sundance markets in a decade, the stage is set for a repeat performance. The pace may not be as frenetic this year, though. Several big-ticket purchases from last year's festivals did only middling business in release, but buyers, sellers and producers see the indie scene on the whole as healthy and full of new opportunities in filmmaking, financing and distribution.

THERE IS A FULL SLATE FOR SALE

"There is a lot of optimism going in," says Ken Kamins, who is selling West of Memphis, the documentary about the West Memphis 3 that he executive produced. "The marketplace is defined by the fact that there are so many movies going to Sundance this year that are having their premieres where worldwide rights are available."

Everything from star-heavy projects such as Lay the Favorite (Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones), Arbitrage (Richard Gere) and The Words (Bradley Cooper, Olivia Wilde) to films from new directors such as Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Antonio Campos (Simon Killer) have sparked curiosity. And the genre-heavy Park City at Midnight section, which includes Black Rock, V/H/S and The Pact, is particularly strong.

"I call it a hometown buffet," says Scott Shooman, executive vp acquisitions CBS Films. "There's something for every single walk of life."

BUYERS ARE LINING UP

Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia, IFC Films, Roadside Attractions and Focus will be typically active, while odds are good that The Weinstein Co. will repeat its big-money theatrics of 2011, when it bought The Details and Our Idiot Brother for a combined $14 million-plus, box-office performance be damned. Summit and its new owner Lionsgate, Relativity, FilmDistrict and CBS Films will hover in case something plays with commercial appeal. Meanwhile, Annapurna Pictures' Megan Ellison, Cross Creek Pictures' Brian Oliver and Ron Burkle are likely to circulate as potential partners on higher-ticket buys.

Also part of the crop of potentially hungry buyers are Open Road Films, New Regency and Paramount, whose president of digital entertainment, Amy Powell, will be in Park City looking for films for Paramount's Insurge label, which just shook up the box office with The Devil Inside. Netflix and its ambitions have become an intriguing question mark, and Mickey Liddell, who has been active at the past few festivals (Silent House, I Love You Phillip Morris), now has a domestic distribution arm, LD Distribution, run by former Paramount Vantage co-head David Dinerstein.

But it will take time for all those buyers to sort out all those films. The dealmaking, which last year came in the first Sunday-to-Wednesday crush, could take longer before a lot of titles find a home.

THAT COULD SPARK BIDDING WARS -- OR NOT

"I smell shades of The Spitfire Grill," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, referencing the Sundance audience award-winning drama that Castle Rock picked up for a whopping $10 million in 1996. "These new companies, they have to have product, and a lot of times they fall victim to festival buzz."

Still, caution could prevail. While many 2011 pickups did OK at the box office, few overperformed; in retrospect, buyers paid more than they should have. Smaller buys such as Buck and Margin Call had better returns-on-investment than bigger bets such as Like Crazy and Idiot Brother. Check-writers will likely be more parsimonious, even if the quantity of buys remains large.

DIGITAL DEALS WILL BE ON THE TABLE  

In the wake of 2011 successes Melancholia and Margin Call, video-on-demand will be a bigger part of the equation. The Weinstein Co. and Freestyle Releasing are among the companies that have launched digital-distribution divisions. Several sellers predict that day-and-date VOD deals will come into play across all sections of the festival.

"A lot of these films could fit that bill of a movie that has a great cast, bigger production value, but isn't automatically destined for a traditional theatrical model," says Submarine Entertainment's Josh Braun, who admits that "there's always that classic dream of having the big independent film release and being the next Winter's Bone. But everyone is experimenting with the best way to make money on their releases."

Jonathan Wenk
Olivia Hamel
Emily Knight/Courtesy of Cedar Creek Productions
Nicole Rivelli/The Weinstein Co.