Boom looms in Sundance


Complete Sundance coverage

UPDATED 7:49 p.m. PT Jan. 16

PARK CITY -- As the indie biz flocks to the Rockies with the curtain going up Thursday on the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, an unusually large number of available films, an abundance of potential buyers and Hollywood's labor unrest is fueling talk of the most robust Sundance market in years.

The memory of pricey and poorly performing buys from last year could still slow the train. But when the frenzy known as Sundance Fever takes over -- with its primary symptom of temporary amnesia -- memories fade quickly.

Acquisition executives will be keeping themselves busy with the sheer volume of films. New 3 p.m. slots have been added to the traditional 6 and 9 p.m. Premieres screenings, increasing the overall number of selections in the category from 17 last year to 25.

Three of Friday's films already are attracting strong interest from distributors: "Sunshine Cleaning," a drama from "Little Miss Sunshine" producer Big Beach starring Emily Blunt and Amy Adams; the Ben Kingsley/Mary-Kate Olsen stoner film "The Wackness"; and actor-director Michael Keaton's romantic fable "The Merry Gentleman."

It's just the start of a schedule front-loaded with available titles. The weekend also will see such dramas as Paul Schneider's "Pretty Bird"; the Elle Fanning starrer "Phoebe in Wonderland"; Mark Pellington's "Henry Poole Is Here"; and the coming-of-age tale "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," one of three films from Michael London's Groundswell Prods. (Miramax's "Smart People" and Overture's "The Visitor" are the others).

Foreign films usually aren't big sellers -- last year's $4 million Searchlight/Weinstein Co. buy of "La Misma Luna" aside -- but in the coming days, the Danish identity-swap thriller "Just Another Love Story," the Russian missing-woman saga "Mermaid" and the Mexican sci-fi tale "Sleep Dealer" are titles that insiders say deliver the goods.

Documentaries, meanwhile, will try to overcome market skepticism this weekend when Nanette Burstein's study in adolescence "American Teen," Stacy Peralta's gang film "Made in America," Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's New Orleans portrait "Trouble the Water," the slavery docu "Tales of the Trade" and Chris Waitt's first-person "A Complete History of My Sexual Failures" debut in Park City.

Saturday afternoon also will see one of the most commercial and expensive movies ever to bow at the fest: 2929 Entertainment's $30 million-plus production "What Just Happened?" a Hollywood comedy-drama directed by Barry Levinson that stars such A-listers as Robert De Niro and Bruce Willis.

John Sloss, the Cinetic Media principal who's selling the film with CAA, said execs think this will be the right venue because it will debunk any misconception that the film is too insidery. "Ninety% of people who go to Sundance aren't in the industry," he said. "It's important to see the movie play in front of the general public."

The Tom Hanks-John Malkovich vehicle "The Great Buck Howard" gets its premiere Friday in Salt Lake City before traveling to Park City, with sources saying the movie already has screened for some studio buyers.

Next week feels far away to many buyers, but distributors already are beginning to eye Plum Pictures' intergenerational dramedy "Diminished Capacity" and "Hamlet 2," the comedy-musical starring Steve Coogan that is a late addition to the festival. (Comedy appears to be a highly regarded category, especially after a glut of war films and dour dramas at the boxoffice this fall.)

Of course, buzz has a way of fading fast if a much-touted movie doesn't screen well, and it can build just as quickly for movies many hadn't been tracking. Few were hyping "Once" or "Waitress" entering Sundance last year, and everyone was talking about "Joshua." Fox Searchlight bought all three; the first two soared, the third bombed.

On the buying side, a complicated set of factors has led to the optimism and kept at bay the possibility that last year's failures would make buyers gun-shy.

Specialty divisions flush with cash, studios seeking to fill holes created by the strike and the creation of new distribution labels including Overture Films and Summit Entertainment all have set tongues wagging about faster buys, frenzied bids and higher prices.

Several buyers, either out of superstition or negotiating strategy, were reluctant to say they would be aggressively courting movies. 'We don't have a bazooka to our head saying we have to buy something," Overture president Chris McGurk said.

But others who might be among the big buyers were open in predicting a hectic market.

"It's not impossible to imagine a scenario where if a title gets hot, it will get white hot," said Miramax president Daniel Battsek, who sat out last year's buying spree but hopes to pick up at least a film or two this year.

"One big executive -- you can guess who -- told me he anticipated bidding to be fierce," festival director Geoff Gilmore said.

Those two predictions were backed by yet another specialty division buyer, who agreed with Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen that the studio arms and new mini-majors that are more reliant on in-house production (and more likely to be affected by a strike) will make the biggest and priciest deals. Such acquisitions-driven distributors as Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia Pictures and IFC Films, he said, are more likely to sit out the feeding frenzy, especially if prices start to rise unusually high.

SPC's historically careful Tom Bernard reiterated his colorful metaphor, which says selling is set up "like speed dating -- only at the end of the night you get married." But he said he's heartened by an increase in the number of sellers offering buyers greater choice. He noted that WMA, UTA, Endeavor, ICM and especially CAA (arriving with its biggest lineup to date) are agencies that often have an interest in nurturing the talent behind their sales slate.

Last year, despite the roughly $50 million in sales, such big specialty players as Picturehouse, Focus and Miramax refrained from writing checks. This year, their presence will be one of several important factors shaping the market.

Perhaps the biggest wild card is the Weinstein Co. With "Grace Is Gone," "Dedication" and "Under the Same Moon," the brothers Weinstein made a series of pricey buys and co-buys last year. How much they "get a taste of the festival game," as Harvey Weinstein said in 2007, will go a long way toward shaping how it's played.