Busy first weekend at Sundance

Big screenings offer no break for buyers

More Sundance coverage
THR's "Brooklyn's Finest" review

PARK CITY -- Sundance's annual weekend sprint through some of the indie world's hottest titles began with a bang -- actually, hundreds of them -- on Friday night as Antoine Fuqua's violent cop drama "Brooklyn's Finest" unspooled to a distributor-packed screening.

The world premiere kicks off a 48-hour period in which the most promising acquisition titles screen back-to-back and, frequently, head-to-head, requiring buyers to navigate carefully and make difficult choices.

Despite its dark themes, the stars of "Finest" (which include Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle and Richard Gere) and at least its trappings of a thriller (it's in fact much more of a study in police and human psychology) have made it one of the more commercially viable titles of the fest.

The CAA- and WMA-co-repped film played strongly at its Eccles debut, and as of Saturday morning several distributors had put forth offers, though some also noted that backend deals for some of its stars could make it a pricey pickup.

The buyer interest signaled that the fest would have, if not the feverish climate of two and three years ago, then at least a little more movement than last year, when opening-weekend hopeful "What Just Happened?" and other high-profile titles flopped with distributors.

Drawing the unenviable slot Friday opposite "Finest" was "Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire," a feature directing effort from "Monster's Ball" producer Lee Daniels that centers on a pregnant inner-city teenager. That screening also was strong, though the play is thought to be mainly for a smaller distributor, some of whom hurried over midway through "Finest."

But it's the two weekend days that will see the big screenings back up like traffic on Main Street.

Early on Saturday afternoon, potential sleeper title "Amreeka" plays opposite Anna Wintour exploration "The September Issue," which examines a month in the life of the Vogue editor who inspired "The Devil Wears Prada." (Foreign rights to the pic went to Wild Bunch as the fest got under way.) The dramatic competition title "Amreeka," from Sundance Middle East Screenwriters Lab alum Cherien Dabis, follows the repercussions of the Iraq War on a Palestinian mother and son who take refuge in Illinois.

The afternoon steamrolls on as the star-studded weepy drama "The Greatest" debuts, with a premiere quickly to follow for "Cold Souls," French writer-director Sophie Barthes' deadpan look at a soul-weary actor -- Paul Giamatti playing a version of himself -- who takes advantage of new soul-storage technology,

The evening hours see overlapping debuts of the Michael Cera quasi-doc "Paper Heart," an early favorite among fest organizers, and another youth-oriented title, Ashton Kutcher's raunchy comedy "Spread," about a Los Angeles gigolo, helmed by "Young Adam" director David Mackenzie.
Acquisitions-minded execs hoping for a break won't get one even late at night. The Park City at Midnight program starts in earnest at the witching hour with Tommy Wirkola's "Dead Snow," about eight medical students who head to the mountains of Norway for a weekend of fun only to find the area already occupied by Nazi zombies.

And Sunday, of course, brings a host of other candidates, including "I Love You Philip Morris," "The Cove" and "Big Fan."

Sellers have so far kept their pre-fest optimism despite the coolest sales market in several years. Some noted that fears over studios tying specialty division hands over SAG waivers were unfounded; only Fox Searchlight is believed to have even mentioned SAG.

The guild has been quick to clarify that any terms of a guaranteed completion contract in effect during a work stoppage would be superseded by the codified basic agreement currently being renegotiated. SAG then declared that it would no longer supply GCCs.

With specialty divisions' recent reluctance and the state of uncertainty about the indie business, the premieres' general air of celebration was tinged with a feeling of anxiety. "A big sale doesn't have to happen overnight," one seller said. "But it wouldn't hurt."