Low-profile pics in limelight at Sundance

'Amreeka,' 'Carter' among films building buzz

PARK CITY -- A star-studded cop drama like "Brooklyn's Finest"? A high-profile animated opening-night film like "Mary & Max"? Jim Carrey's turn as a gay man in "I Love You Philip Morris"?


A rough-hewn documentary about a popular rapper? A quiet drama about Middle East immigrants in the Midwest? A real-life story about men who attack dolphins?

Very likely.

As the Sundance Film Festival opens, buzz titles are springing from buyers' lips, as they do every year. "Finest," a reunion of "Training Day" partners Antoine Fuqua and Ethan Hawke, leads a pack of prominent titles seeking distribution, along with movies that follow this year's trend toward one-word titles, including "Spread," "Manure" and "Shrink" (an Ashton Kutcher-toplined off-color comedy, the Polish brothers' return to Park City and a Kevin Spacey drama from television veteran Jonas Pate, respectively).

Buyers expect at least one or two films to go for solid seven figures, with one or two more pulling in respectable sales. One also can throw Shana Feste's family drama "The Greatest," Lone Scherfig's period romantic comedy "An Education," the Michael Cera-toplined quasi-documentary "Paper Heart" and the Robin Williams-Bobcat Goldthwait collaboration "World's Greatest Dad" into the mix.

But with high-profile movies flaming out at the festival or the boxoffice last year -- Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened?" and Andrew Fleming's "Hamlet 2," respectively -- and acquisition-minded distributors carrying thinner wallets, small movies might make the biggest splash. That especially will be true if a high-profile title gets even a small amount of negative attention.

"Hype kills this year more than ever," one seller said.

That suddenly puts a slew of smaller movies in the limelight, creating its own form of (nonhype) hype.

In that growing group is Cherien Dabis' "Amreeka," the story of a Palestinian single mother who moves from the tumultuous Middle East to rural Illinois. The movie has drawn comparisons in tone and theme to "The Visitor," one of the big festival breakouts of the past several years, and veterans will watch closely the pic's Saturday afternoon debut at the Eccles Center in Park City.

Two docs also are creeping into the consciousness of festgoers. Adam Bhala Lough's "The Carter" looks at the life and career of rapper Lil Wayne, and there is high commercial potential for the right distributor. And "The Cove," Louie Psihoyos' look at a town in which dolphins are under attack, plays like a detective story with a "March of the Penguins" subtext, according to those familiar with the picture.

A handful of Ireland- and U.K.-set pics quietly are hitting festgoers' radar screens. Included in that category are Oliver Hirschbiegel's return to Europe with the IRA drama "Five Minutes of Heaven" and Nicolas Winding Refn's British prison movie "Bronson." Both will make small debuts at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, but insiders have said they could emerge as breakouts.

The template for small entries is a group of films from last year's Sundance that included Courtney Hunt's low-key drama "Frozen River," which Sony Pictures Classics picked up for high six figures, and James Marsh's inspirational doc "Man on Wire," which went to Magnolia for a similarly low outlay. Both of those movies have earned in the $3 million range theatrically, but their awards and critical attention -- and low purchase price -- mean they're considered savvy investments, especially as they move into DVD and other ancillary windows.

Of course, with media coming in and competition fierce among the remaining specialty divisions, the gambit to play down hype doesn't always work. UTA was careful to avoid talking about "Paper Heart," but word slipped.

At Sundance, hype often is most likely to hit when you're trying least.