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This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Sundance Film Festival ended Feb. 1 without a record-setting acquisition. But upstarts and hungry veteran distributors created one of the most seller-friendly festivals in recent memory, with 34 titles scoring deals at press time. Whether it was newbie outfits like Broad Green plunking down high-seven figures for the Robert Redford–Nick Nolte hiking dramedy A Walk in the Woods or Fox Searchlight scooping up the immigrant tale Brooklyn for $9 million, there was plenty of evidence that “a bold era of competition among buyers new and old” is afoot, says UTA sales agent Rena Ronson. “We saw a lot of aggressive bidding from distributors looking for more traditional films, paying significant dollars to get finished product they likely would have paid more to make.”
Although nothing crossed the Sundance high-water mark of $10 million, paid most recently for Hamlet 2 in 2008, several titles clustered in the $6 million to $9 million range, including grand jury prize winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Searchlight), Dope (Open Road/Sony) and Noah Baumbach‘s Mistress America (Searchlight).
“There was a combo of great movies and not-so-great movies,” says Jeff Deutchman, vp acquisitions at Alchemy, which picked up the Nicole Kidman thriller Strangerland as well as Zipper, about a sex-addicted prosecutor. “But in order to get one of the small number of films that has the potential to work, you have to be willing to spend more than you might want to.”
Even documentaries fared better, with the typical low-six-figure price tag of past festivals giving way to heftier sums. Grand jury prize winner The Wolfpack, about six isolated brothers whose TV set becomes their window to the world, sold to Magnolia Pictures for high-six figures.
“Buyers were eager to engage earlier than usual,” says ICM Partners’ Jessica Lacy, who sold or was close to selling six titles including the Taylor Schilling comedy The Overnight to new distributor The Orchard, which also picked up Joe Swanberg‘s Digging for Fire as well as Finders Keepers, a doc about the legal battle over a severed leg. “This was in part due to the number of prebuys ahead of the festival, as well as the number of new players.”
Still, several films seen as having commercial potential remained unsold at press time, including Leslye Headland‘s romantic comedy Sleeping With Other People. Also raising eyebrows: For a second consecutive Sundance, Harvey Weinstein left empty-handed despite needing to fill holes in his 2015 and 2016 release schedules.
The hot Sundance market bodes well for Berlin, which kicks off Feb. 5. “A lot of distributors came out of Sundance without having bought anything,” says Deutchman. “They will be especially hungry to find stuff in Berlin.”
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