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A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Sundance 2014 went in like a lion and came out like a lamb.
The festival, marking its 30th anniversary, made a promising entrance Jan. 16 with opening night film Whiplash and the documentary Dinosaur 13. Both films sold quickly, as Sony Pictures Classics muscled out A24 and Roadside Attractions for North American, German and Australian distribution rights to the Damien Chazelle-helmed drama about a young jazz drummer for nearly $2.5 million. Hours earlier, Lionsgate and CNN Films nabbed North American rights to Dinosaur 13, a documentary about the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the unearthing of the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever, for nearly $1 million.
But despite the unseasonably warm temperatures and dearth of snow in Park City, things quickly cooled off in the acquisitions marketplace. By the time the festival wrapped Jan. 26, The Weinstein Co. had yet to pounce on a single title and no sale had topped $3.5 million.
“There was a big spike at beginning of the festival, and then it sort of flatlined,” says Submarine’s Josh Braun, who repped Dinosaur 13 as well as The One I Love, which sold to RADiUS-TWC toward the end of the festival. “It felt like buyers had the collective approach of looking, waiting and then, after careful deliberations, eventually jumping.”
Coming into the festival, buyers unanimously predicted a seller’s market. But a funny thing happened when the films began unspooling in Park City. Harvey Weinstein, who typically sets the tone of the festival, made little impact this year. The Weinstein Co. seemed unimpressed by the offerings and never even entered into a bidding war during the festival.
“It’s always interesting when Harvey doesn’t get as aggressive,” says A24’s Noah Sacco, who bought Lynn Shelton‘s Laggies for $1.75 million, the romantic zombie movie Life After Beth for $1.5 million and the comedy Obvious Child for low seven figures. “There seemed to be no impulse buying this year. A lot of the buyers had to have a lot of powwows before making a move.”
Technically Weinstein didn’t leave empty-handed as his RADiUS label picked up Fed Up, a documentary exposé executive produced by Katie Couric about how the food industry has contributed to obesity in America, in addition to the Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss and Ted Danson starrer The One I Love.
There were a handful of sales that topped $2.5 million including Wish I Was Here, actor-director Zach Braff‘s Kickstarter-funded follow-up to his 2004 directorial debut Garden State (Focus Features bought the film for $2.75 million and made a significant theatrical commitment of about 600 theaters); the Bill Hader-Kristen Wiig pairing The Skeleton Twins, which sold to Lionsgate/Roadside for $3.5 million; Mike Cahill‘s sci-fi entry I Origins to Fox Seachlight in a worldwide distribution deal for nearly $3 million, according to one source; and the Brendan Gleeson-led drama Calvary, which also sold to Searchlight for north of $2.5 million.
But coming off last year’s record-setting sales for Don Jon (Relativity paid $4 million up front and made a $25 million prints-and-advertising commitment) and The Way Way Back (Fox Searchlight plunked down $9.75 million), Sundance 2014 seemed positively muted. As the festival culminated, a number of high-profile projects remained unaccounted for including the Anne Hathaway vehicle Song One, the Kristen Stewart starrer Camp X-Ray and Maya Forbes‘ semi-autobiographical drama Infinitely Polar Bear, which was expected to be the festival’s big seller thanks to its awards-season potential.
But UTA’s Rena Ronson cautioned against calling the festival lackluster. “You can’t define a festival only by the up-front fees paid,” she says. “It was a good festival. It’s just simmering instead of sizzling.” Ronson also predicted that many more deals will close in the coming week or two, noting that last year, UTA made one of its biggest sales, Lake Bell‘s In a World, a week after Sundance ended.”
Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker concurs that Sundance 2014 was strong on the acquisitions front.
“You didn’t see that film that went for zillions of dollars this year,” says Barker, who in addition to landing Grand Jury and Audience Award winner Whiplash, also bought Ira Sachs‘ romantic drama Love Is Strange and the Icelandic road trip pic Land Ho! “There’s no big headline this year. It was a good year, and I didn’t see any bad movies. I can’t think of another year I can say that. The only criticism I have is, overall, the docs seemed less exciting than in previous years.”
Still, one doc piqued the interest of the big spenders, albeit for remake rights, the feel-good documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which saw Sony, DreamWorks and Searchlight vying before Justin Lin swooped in and acquired the true story of the Portland Mavericks as a producing and directing vehicle. But as Lin’s deal was closing, a separate negotiation was taking place to involve Kurt Russell and Todd Field in the adaptation (both are featured in the documentary). Russell balked at engaging unless Field would direct. In a who’s-on-first moment providing the festival with its only bit of dramatic tension, there was a mad scramble to appease the three parties, all of whom are repped by CAA. In order to make the second deal happen, Lin quickly stepped aside as director and will only produce and finance.
Alas, the documentary itself remained unsold as of press time.
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