risky business

Deep-pocketed parkas trigger a flurry of sales

Park City ? Under cloudless skies at this week's Sundance Film Festival, a perfect storm of elements created a level of competitive buying unlike any this festival has ever seen. In recent years a buyer's market, Sundance 2007 clearly favored the sellers and revealed a global shift in indie feature economics.

Thirteen movies ? 10 features and three documentaries ? sold to distributors, both foreign and domestic, over six days, with many more smaller deals expected to close at festival's end and beyond.

Despite festival director Geoffrey Gilmore's oft-stated focus on film, Sundance is clearly one of the biggest markets in the world, after Cannes. "A lot of people were willing to jump back into the game," Gilmore said. "The program had enormous talent dealing with contemporary issues in the moment. We'll see how the films play more broadly. This year saw the broadest range of activity, which stimulates and encourages people to jump in."

Forced to compete to land the pictures they needed, some companies might experience buyer's remorse when the reality of reaching real, live filmgoers sets in. But last year's three Oscar-nominated Sundance successes ? Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," Paramount Vantage's "An Inconvenient Truth" and ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson" ? provided an added incentive to chase down other possible Sundance winners.

"This reaffirmed the playability of films out of Sundance," said Cinetic Media's John Sloss, who was selling his biggest and strongest slate ever (about 16 films) because "we saw better films this year. I was surprised by the robustness of the market myself."

What happened? Several factors played out this January. The Sundance programmers screened a solid slate of more commercially accessible pictures than usual. "It's a stronger collection of films," ThinkFilm's Mark Urman said.

These were in turn sold by more agents from WMA, UTA, CAA and Endeavor, lawyers like Sloss, and sellers like Festival de Cannes player Celluloid Dreams. Foreign sellers such as Fortissimo and Summit also picked up Sundance titles to hawk to the world. The sellers expertly manipulated a larger number of buyers, who happened to be hungry for product. "Films now have a greater chance of being distributed because of the higher number of independent companies and specialty divisions that are now operating," said Sundance veteran Harvey Weinstein, who was back in form at this year's fest.

On the other hand, Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard argued, "the smaller companies don't have the ability to get the big sellers on the phone. Everyone is looking for the big deal."

The activity was mind-boggling. Night after night, distributors butted heads in bidding wars, pushing prices way up. By aggressively plunking down the fest's biggest bid of $7 million for world rights, Paramount Vantage's John Lesher landed the fest's most sought-after movie, "Son of Rambow," an innovative film from production company Hammer & Tongs about a young boy's creative imagination. He sealed the deal with new Sundance seller Celluloid Dreams by packaging "Rambow" with the Canadian step-dancing picture "How She Move," which sold to Vantage and MTV Films for $3 million.

In addition to Miramax and Picturehouse, Focus Features had been chasing "Rambow" but went home empty-handed, according to Focus executive John Lyons. "We loved it, but not at that price," he said. "In reality, we didn't need to buy anything."

Fox Searchlight acquisitions executive Tony Safford pulled three consecutive overnighters as Searchlight twice went toe-to-toe against the reinvigorated Weinstein. Weinstein won the first round by nabbing worldwide rights to the tear-jerker "Grace Is Gone," starring John Cusack as a father who loses his wife in the Iraq War. Rather than continue to drive up prices, Searchlight president Peter Rice opted to partner with Weinstein with a winning bid of $5 million for the heart-tugging Mexican border drama "La Misma Luna," starring Kate del Castillo and America Ferrera. Searchlight also bought the psychological thriller "Joshua" for $3.7 million.

"Everyone needed a film and were willing to overpay," a veteran observer said. "They all bought genre or feel-good movies with a better-than-average chance of crossing over. Anything with a hint of challenge they avoided like the plague."

Together, Weinstein and old partner Lionsgate ("Fahrenheit 9/11," "Dogma") ponied up $2.5 million to acquire world rights to the female empowerment horror comedy "Teeth."

"I can't tell you how much fun I had rolling up my sleeves and staying up all night with my acquisitions team," Weinstein confessed at fest's end. "The titles we partnered on were all highly sought after, and it's a smart way to avoid the prices inflating due to intense bidding wars that have become so common at film festivals."

The companies that haven't produced movies themselves have had to buy them. It's supply and demand. Several observers think the buyers simply had more money to spend. "Things were sold for more money because the mini-majors have big-studio resources," attorney Linda Lichter said. "They have output deals that guarantee that they cannot lose. They're all being fueled by video and DVD."

At long last, the marketplace is reflecting new levels of indie film financing from Wall Street hedge funds, equity investors and dot-com refugees. The documentaries "Chicago 10," "Nanking" and "No End in Sight," among others, were financed by wealthy Internet moguls-turned-producers: eBay's Jeff Skoll, AOL's Ted Leonsis and Vermeer's Charles Ferguson, respectively.

The 2006 Sundance hit "The Illusionist," which financier Bob Yari could have sold to a studio, was instead self-distributed by Yari, who then reaped the rewards. This trend has not gone unnoticed by investors and filmmakers who are eager to retain more say in the process of selling and recouping their investment on their films. "Movies are huge risks. Most indie films sell for less than they are made for unless they're lucky enough to get in a bidding war," HDNet Films' Jason Kliot said. "I'm heartened that studio distributors are paying more."

Many refugees from Hollywood also are turning to indie filmmaking out of frustration with the limitations of the studio system. "They're fed up," said producer Janet Yang ("Dark Matters"). "It's passion vs. paycheck."

Three pictures from actor-directors scored at Sundance. The late Adrienne Shelly's dramedy "Waitress," starring Keri Russell, and Justin Theroux's "Dedication," starring Mandy Moore, both made global sales. The first went to Searchlight for $4 million; the second to the Weinstein Co. in global partnership with First Look Studios for $4 million.

Veteran indie filmmaker-actor Steve Buscemi's "Interview," an entertaining two-hander with Sienna Miller, also played well but had not sold at fest's end.

Documentaries, some of which were enhanced by the innovative use of animation and talent, also fared well. Magnolia Pictures closed the popular title "Crazy Love," about a volatile pair of lovers, at the start of the festival for mid-six figures. ThinkFilm's Urman, with newly deep pockets after his company's acquisition by Capco Group, plunked down $2.5 million to pick up the astronaut exploration movie "In the Shadow of the Moon" ? Discovery picked up North American TV rights and took a branding and equity interest in the docu. Sony Pictures Classics paid $1.8 million for the controversial art world story "My Kid Could Paint That."

"I'm fried," sighed Picturehouse's Bob Berney, who dropped out early on "Rambow" and picked up a cheap docu about competitive video game players at Slamdance instead. "I've never seen business like this. I don't want to compete with these crazy prices. You don't want to wake up in the morning and say, 'Oh my God, how am I going to release this?' "

Anne Thompson can be reached at athompson@hollywoodreporter.com and www.reporter.blogs.com/risky.