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This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As if taking its cues from the stock market, which hit record highs in 2013 and is expected to post increases in 2014, the market for new films at the Sundance Film Festival definitely looks bullish. In 2013, the festival saw record-setting sales for Don Jon ($4 million, Relativity) and The Way, Way Back ($9.75 million, Fox Searchlight), but buyers aren’t likely to see a market correction this year as they make their annual trek to Park City.
“This will be a seller’s market without fail,” says Radius co-head Tom Quinn, who along with co-head Jason Janego bought five titles at last year’s festival including 20 Feet From Stardom.
Nevertheless, most of last year’s big purchases didn’t turn out to be gold mines — Relativity made a $25 million prints-and-advertising commitment to Don Jon, which ended up doing $24.5 million at the domestic box office. But buyers and sellers still are bracing for a frenzied pace as hungry distributors look to fill slots for traditional theatrical, day-and-date VOD and straight-VOD amid increasing competition.
There are plenty of titles with commercial appeal like Zach Braff‘s Wish I Was Here, which isn’t a follow-up to his 2004 indie classic Garden State but is enough of a close relative to excite interest. Like Braff did a decade ago, three prominent actors are making their feature helming debut: Mad Men‘s John Slattery has directed God’s Pocket with Philip Seymour Hoffman; indie darling William H. Macy is coming with Rudderless, starring Billy Crudup and Anton Yelchin; and Arrested Development‘s David Cross has helmed the subversive comedy Hits.
“There’s always a lot of films with breakout potential. But this year, it’s not as obvious which films will be the breakouts,” says ICM’s Jessica Lacy, who is handling four films, including the Bill Hader–Kristen Wiig pairing The Skeleton Twins.
Genre buyers will be scouring the fest’s sidebars. “This year, genre is everywhere,” says Exclusive Media’s Matt Brodlie. “The independent financiers and festival programmers seem to have gotten the message that buyers respond to comedies and genre movies. The days of Sundance full of small personal dramas seem to be over.” Even traditionally dramatic subjects like abortion are going the comedic route — witness Gillian Robespierre‘s Obvious Child, starring stand-up comedian Jenny Slate. “Several of the films this year will go for many millions of dollars,” says Tribeca Film’s Nick Savva. “But at this point, you’re scratching your head because you just don’t know which ones.”
CAMP X-RAY (UTA)
DIRECTOR Peter Sattler
STARS Kristen Stewart, Payman Maadi, Lane Garrison, J.J. Soria
THE BUZZ Stewart takes on the role of a Gitmo prison guard who strikes up an unlikely relationship with a detainee, a suspected terrorist played by A Separation‘s Maadi.
COLD IN JULY (WME)
DIRECTOR Jim Mickle STARS Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard
THE BUZZ A year after his cannibal-themed We Are What We Are caused a stir at Sundance, Mickle is back with this Texas-set thriller about a man, Hall, who kills a home intruder, then finds his life spiraling into violence.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE (WME)
DIRECTOR Justin Simien
STARS Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell
THE BUZZ Its cast might be low-wattage, but it could be explosive as it satirically follows four black students at an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out after white students throw an African-American-themed party.
DIRECTOR Len Abrahamson
STARS Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy
THE BUZZ Fassbender, the much-in-demand leading man, plays an enigmatic and brilliant rock star in this comedy — and spends much of the movie wearing an oversize fake head.
INFINITELY POLAR BEAR (ICM)
DIRECTOR Maya Forbes
STARS Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide
THE BUZZ Monsters vs. Aliens writer Forbes moves behind the camera for this tale of a manic-depressive father who tries to win back his wife by becoming a responsible father to his two daughters. J.J. Abrams exec produced.
DIRECTOR Lynn Shelton
STARS Keira Knightley Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garlin, Mark Webber
THE BUZZ Shelton follows up last year’s Touchy Feely with a coming-of-age story about a 28-year-old woman (Knightley), stuck in permanent adolescence.
LOW DOWN (UTA)
DIRECTOR Jeff Preiss
STARS John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Flea
THE BUZZ With the help of one of the fest’s most eclectic casts, Preiss chronicles the life of real-life jazz pianist Joe Albany (Hawkes) from the perspective of his daughter Amy (Fanning) as she watches him deal with drugs amid the backdrop of the decadent ’60s and ’70s music scene.
THE SKELETON TWINS (ICM/UTA)
DIRECTOR Craig Johnson
STARS Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason
THE BUZZ With a pair of Saturday Night Live vets like Hader and Wiig toplining, it would be easy to assume this is a laugh-out-loud comedy. But think again. Buzz already is building about Hader’s dramatic performance as a gay man in upstate New York who reunites with his estranged sister (Wiig). Wilson provides the comic relief.
SONG ONE (CAA)
DIRECTOR Kate Barker-Froyland
STARS Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield
THE BUZZ Hathaway plays a woman who returns home to New York when an accident leaves her brother in a coma — and then finds herself a new life amid the Brooklyn music scene.
WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (CAA)
DIRECTOR Gregg Araki
STARS Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane
THE BUZZ Sundance vet Araki directs an adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s novel, with Woodley playing a young woman whose life is rocked by the sudden disappearance of her mother.
FINDING FELA (CINETIC)
DIRECTOR Alex Gibney
THE BUZZ Sundance has spawned such crowd-pleasing music docs as Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom, and for his latest, Gibney (The Armstrong Lie) hopes to keep that tradition alive with a look at Afrobeat trailblazer Fela Anikulapo Kuti and how he used his music to fight for the rights of oppressed people in Nigeria.
NO NO: A DOCKUMENTARY (CINETIC)
DIRECTOR Jeffrey Radice
THE BUZZ Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while on LSD during a 1970 game between his Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres. Radice’s film recounts that improbable feat as it captures the career of the proudly black Ellis.
LIFE ITSELF (WME/CINETIC)
DIRECTOR Steve James
THE BUZZ James’ documentary about the late film critic and Sundance mainstay Roger Ebert is expected to sell before it even plays the fest. At press time, IFC, Magnolia, Oscilloscope and The Weinstein Co. all were circling, and CNN Films has picked up broadcast rights.
THE GREEN PRINCE (Submarine)
DIRECTOR Nadav Schirman
THE BUZZ Part doc, part thriller, the film centers on a Palestinian man who became one of Israel’s prized intelligence assets when he agreed to spy on his own people, a role he played for more than a decade.
THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY: THE STORY OF AARON SWARTZ (CINETIC/ROCO)
DIRECTOR Brian Knappenberger
THE BUZZ Swartz committed suicide at age 26 on Jan. 11, 2013. This film examines the life of the programming prodigy, a onetime co-owner of Reddit, who championed open Web access but found himself facing steep fines and decades in prison for downloading academic journals.
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