Indie film crowd upbeat for Sundance

Buyers gearing up for Thursday's festival kickoff

Can potential breakout titles like "Blue Valentine," "Hesher" and "The Extra Man" put the spirit back into the disheartened indie film biz? The Sundance Film Festival, which opens Thursday, might be just the place to find out.

"Buyers seem geared up, like a cloud has lifted and they're not being watched as much (as last year)," new fest director John Cooper said.

It certainly hasn't hurt that 2009 was a pretty good year for indie films at the boxoffice, with "Precious," "Paranormal Activity" and "An Education" sparking critics and audiences alike. And newer players, such as Oscilloscope with "The Messenger" and Summit with "The Hurt Locker," have handled recent acquisitions with skill.

"Independent film may not be a studio business anymore," Goldwyn vp acquisitions Peter Goldwyn said, "but rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated."

Sellers expect Overture, IFC, Magnolia, Sony Classics, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions to factor into negotiations this go-round, though festival regular Fox Searchlight is an unexpected question mark. Harvey Weinstein might even be back on the prowl following his acquisition of "A Single Man" at Toronto.

For one thing, there are empty slots on the release slates of bigger buyers such as Focus and Searchlight. And buyers have been tracking potential breakout titles for years as scripts and are eager to see if they live up to their potential on screen.

Some sales agents deny that there even is a shortage of buyers, saying there's just a dearth of stable -- and solidly funded -- ones. That has opened the door to new creativity in dealmaking and third-party financing.

Producer/financier Celine Rattray of Mandalay Vision, whose former outfit Plum Pictures has two acquisitions titles in the fest ("The Kids Are All Right" and "The Romantics"), noted that buyer competition is heating up from a lot of people who'll be out there ready to set up "new distribution apparatuses." In addition to new companies such as Paladin and Phase 4, soon-to-launch labels and an upcoming Film Department arm will provide potential outlets to producers.

And there are more than a few free-floating distribution execs on the loose -- Russell Schwartz, Tom Ortenberg and David Dinerstein among them -- to fill that knowledge and/or financing gap by partnering with prospective buyers.

"There will be more creative deals than the typical MG (minimum guarantee)," said Apparition co-founder Bob Berney, who expects to pick up at least one film at the fest. "The P&A commitment will be the big number in these deals."

William Morris Endeavor's Graham Taylor agreed, noting that filmmakers' expectations need to be refocused in this way.

"A few years back, filmmakers felt like the validation of their movie was directly linked with what the minimum guarantee was -- i.e. it sells for $4 million," Taylor said. "Which make good stories but by no means denotes success for them as a filmmaker or the ultimate success of the picture. The reality is, for the filmmakers, whether something sold for $500,000 or $3 million, what's much more salient is what is the marketing plan and what is the P&A commitment."

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Pre-festival, filmmakers have been experimenting with all sorts of new distribution models, mainly to take advantage of the visibility Sundance itself provides as a promotional bounce.

Sundance Selects has cut video-on-demand deals that will see "The Shock Doctrine," "Daddy Longlegs" and "7 Days" premiering on VOD as they screen at the festival. New Video and Zipline Entertainment plan a digital release for "Bass Ackwards" the moment the festival ends.

And Anchor Bay, with "Frozen," and Apparition, with "The Runaways," are releasing their potentially more commercial films theatrically in the weeks after the fest.

The bottom line is that the most valuable thing filmmakers could take to Park City this year is an open mind.

Jay A. Fernandez reported from Los Angeles; Gregg Goldstein reported from New York.