Stunned 'dance: What just happened?


The 2008 Sundance Film Festival was a study in playing against type — and hype.

Several phenomena taken as gospel for this year's festival and the indie world in general were flipped on their ear. Many highly touted films were left without buyers, who seemed especially immune to the lure of name stars.

Small films that received little attention from buyers coming in often popped at the fest, including a documentary about Roman Polanski bought by HBO/the Weinstein Co. and a single-mother drama, "Frozen River," bought by Sony Pictures Classics for mid-six figures. On Thursday, a number of distributors also were circling the Brian Cox prison-break drama "The Escapist."

In the latest example of a Park City film without marquee names getting a big deal, Anchor Bay Entertainment on Thursday picked up domestic distribution rights to Jon Knautz's horror comedy "Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer" in a mid-six-figure deal with a theatrical commitment.

The film premiered at the nearby Slamdance Film Festival. It features Robert Englund ("Nightmare on Elm Street") in the story of a teen (producer-star Trevor Matthews) haunted by the murder of his parents who accidentally awakens an ancient evil. The deal was negotiated by Shaun Redick and Nate Bolotin of the Collective with Anchor Bay's Mark Ward.

Magnolia Pictures was the front-runner to acquire North American rights to Dennis Dortch's look at black sexuality, "Good Day to Be Black & Sexy," which premiered at the Prospector Square theater under the radar of many buyers. Attorney Steven C. Beer is repping sales of the film.

Meanwhile, a number of much-hyped films (save for the high school satire "Hamlet 2") failed to draw the expected interest.

A buying frenzy triggered by the strike never materialized. if anything, the strike, along with the recent boxoffice struggles of many specialty films, put a damper on sales. That was no surprise for festival director Geoff Gilmore.

"The notion that people would respond to one crisis by possibly creating another just seemed silly to me," he said. The agreement reached by the DGA on the eve of the fest also seemed to soften sales as hope grew for a resolution to the WGA strike.

No company bought more than one film, and a host of specialty players didn't buy any, including Miramax, Picturehouse and Warner Independent. Even the Weinstein Co., which announced its return last year with fanfare and multiple purchases, bought international rights to one documentary.

Contributions from new players were minimal; Overture bought one movie, Summit bought none.

And while Main Street was in many ways as spirited as in years past, there was a definite down vibe because of the strike.

Few movies ignited fest-wide enthusiasm. Last year, Fox Searchlight's "The Savages" and Paramount Vantage's "Son of Rambow" were titles industryites couldn't get enough of. There was no film like that this year, and all-night bidding sessions also were rare.

The leverage held by the sellers over the past few years seemed to fade as buyers became more cautious. "I think the results support a shift to quality with reluctance in the direction of things that could be 'a piece of business' or acquired via hype," Yari Film Group chief Bob Yari said.

But if the festival lacked the dazzle of all-night deals and astronomical prices, the films displayed here could still draw interest. The residual market is expected to be as strong as ever, and the prices for some titles should come down over the coming days and weeks. That could lead to sales to previously interested buyers who balked at Sundance's asking prices, while also opening the door for smaller distributors such as IFC and Magnolia to enter the game.

"Distributors need films, and eventually many of the titles will find a home at the level the market dictates," Picturehouse president Bob Berney said.

It's less a question of if than when for such movies as "Sunshine Cleaning," "Phoebe in Wonderland," "The Wackness" and "What Just Happened?"

There were, of course, the pricey buys — Searchlight did come in strong with a nearly $5 million purchase of "Choke." But even here, one of the holiest cliches was knocked over: that stars are what attract distributors.

The priciest two buys of the festival cost $10 milion and $5 million. Their respective stars were a little-known British comedian and Sam Rockwell. Meanwhile, movies with Robert De Niro, Amy Adams and Ben Kingsley went unsold.

The most prescient man in the slow market for star-filled movies might have been the same man who foresaw the explosion of independent cinema, Sundance founder Robert Redford. At the opening news conference, he said that the buzz around films often is misguided, especially when based on stars involved.

Films also seemed to divide audiences. "There were many good films, but every single one had people rallying behind them and everyone had their detractors," Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker said.

One of the few bright spots among the fall releases helped propel buyers. There was an unspoken searching for the next "Juno," a movie that was not a product of the finished-film market, as such tales of colorful teenagers as "American Teen" and "Hamlet 2" commanded the greatest interest.

Meanwhile, actors-turned-directors found the road difficult: Movies directed by Michael Keaton ("The Merry Gentlemen"), Stanley Tucci ("Blind Date") and Paul Schneider ("Pretty Bird") generated modest interest from buyers.

But Sundance organizers were intent on emphasizing a broader way of gauging a film festival.

"There are a half-dozen ways to judge a festival, and what acquisitions execs say is only one," Gilmore said. With 51 films from debut directors and a batch of sales likely imminent, many of those judgments are still to come.