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When it screened Saturday at Sundance, Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen” was one of the bright spots in a weekend of disappointing films.
With buyers effusive about the colorful documentary about teenagers in Indiana, a quick sale to a sizable distributor seemed imminent.
But five days later, the sale finally closed, and the tale of dealing and debating that unfolded shows how tangled the film acquisitions business can be.
Paramount Vantage will end up with worldwide rights to the film, excluding the U.K., in a deal expected to cost about $750,000 upfront, plus about $1.75 million if the film hits $20 million at the boxoffice, plus significant backend profit participation for the filmmakers.
Along the way, however, there was wrangling, uncertainty and a unique display of how Sundance negotiations can turn into a chess match that plays out over not just hours but days.
While it wasn’t quite the melodrama of “Thank You for Smoking” at Toronto two years ago — where Paramount Classics believed it had the film before it went to Fox Searchlight — the back-and-forth provides one of the juiciest dramas of a recent film festival.
The jockeying began when Searchlight made a quick offer after the initial Saturday screening, with topper Peter Rice meeting with the filmmaker and execs attending its Facebook-sponsored party.
Those familiar with the offer said it was a $1.5 million bid for a wide range of rights, including the first television window and TV series remake rights, both of which were controlled by producer A&E Indie Films.
The Searchlight bid didn’t go through, depending on who you believe, because the sellers hoped for a better price, Searchlight sought too many rights or Searchlight was upset that the filmmakers didn’t respond to its 2 a.m. deadline. By sunrise Sunday, Searchlight was out.
But the saga was only just beginning.
With an aggressive overall deal offer from Sony Pictures Classics for about $2 million for North America and Australia, the stage was set for a battle between the New York distributor and Nick Meyer’s Paramount Vantage.
Normally when there are two bidders left, the sale moves quickly to completion, with a seller evaluating the money, rights and prospective buyer’s marketing plan and making a decision.
But with two sellers co-repping the film — the sometimes-rivalrous Cinetic and CAA — and as many as four producing and financing entities that includes Burstein and partner Jordan Roberts, 57th & Irving, Quasiworld Entertainment and A&E, the stage was set for drama.
“We couldn’t get everyone on the same page at the same time,” said a source.
Burstein, involved in the negotiations, was said to be concerned about how the film was treated theatrically.
At issue was a complicated set of financial and marketing concerns. SPC was offering more money upfront — how much should that be a factor?
Vantage is known as a company with marketing muscle, and it had pitched itself as the company that turned “An Inconvenient Truth” into a $50 million worldwide hit.
But rather than just sit pat and wait for a decision, SPC began pursuing the project aggressively.
Execs visited the sellers several times to make a pitch, laying out a plan that showed how the company can break out marketing challenges, as it did with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
By Monday, the buyers were getting anxious, wondering about the status, having weathered rumors at various points that Vantage and SPC were getting the films.
By Tuesday night, depending on who you believe, the sellers either decided the Vantage marketing plan was the one it favored and offered bigger global potential or SPC got frustrated about its bigger upfront offer not being accepted as the filmmakers remained undecided.
By Wednesday, all parties had reconciled to a Vantage buy — and a festival acquisition for a movie everyone liked had become a five-day exercise in anxiety and finger-pointing.
The deal was negotiated by Vantage’s Jeffrey Freedman, with Cinetic Media and CAA repping the filmmakers. Amy Israel and Ben Cotner will oversee the project for Vantage.
In a separate development late Wednesday, SPC scooped up North American rights to “Frozen River,” Courtney Hunt’s drama about immigrants and single mothers, for a figure said to be just under $1 million.
Heather Rae and Chip Hourihan produced “River”; William Morris Independent repped the filmmakers.
Producers were said to be impressed by SPC’s awards campaigning for Amy Adams in “Junebug” two years ago.
The potential awards-season film, which premiered strongly Friday at the Racquet Club, examines a working-class single mother who teams up with an American Indian woman who runs an illegal immigrant-smuggling operation. Melissa Leo and Misty Upham star.
On another front, Andrew Herwitz’s sales and new distribution outfit the Film Sales Co. picked up worldwide sales rights (except the U.K.) and U.S. distribution rights to the documentary “Derek.”
Issac Julien’s feature is a portrait of the late Derek Jarman, a staple art house director, whose frequent star Tilda Swinton wrote and directed the docu.
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