Sundance 2013: What's Behind the 7-Figure Spending

Don Jon's Addiction

U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

In Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s charming directorial debut, a selfish modern-day Don Juan attempts to change his ways. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Rob Brown.

$9.75 million for "The Way, Way Back," $4 million for Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon's Addiction," documentary prices are soaring -- why this year's deals are breaking records.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

PARK CITY -- Blame it on the altitude. As the 2013 Sundance Film Festival kicked into high gear, one common refrain could be heard: Sale prices are exceeding even the best expectations.

Mouths were agape as the dust settled Jan. 21 on Relativity Media’s colossal deal ($4 million upfront and a $25 million prints-and-advertising commitment) for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s racy directorial debut, Don Jon’s Addiction. The sexually graphic film, which was co-repped by CAA and WME, was making a few buyers squeamish. Still, Relativity, which had never been a Park City player (the company’s sole previous Sundance pickup was the experimental Catfish in 2010), swooped in and struck the biggest domestic deal ever for a Sundance title, when counting P&A. Then on Jan. 22, Fox Searchlight bought the dramedy The Way, Way Back for $9.75 million.

PHOTOS: Sundance Film Festival 2013: THR's Video Diaries

“There is a certain hype taking over this year, where buyers are spending wildly for films,” says one buyer who was empty-handed as of Jan. 22 after being beaten by a distributor willing to plunk down low seven figures for a hot documentary. “You’re seeing a feeling of panic setting in for buyers who think they have to have a film, and have it now.”

In fact, low seven figures became the de rigueur price for documentaries, as at least three commanded $1 million-plus: The Summit (Sundance Selects), Twenty Feet From Stardom (The Weinstein Co.’s Radius label) and Blackfish (Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films).

During last year’s festival, only one doc sold for $1 million or more.

“I think there is a realization that when you hit Monday, and your flight is probably going to take off Wednesday morning, and if you can’t leave the festival without a film -- now is the time [to make a deal],” says Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun, who sold the doc Dirty Wars to Sundance Selects in addition to repping Summit, Stardom and Blackfish.

STORY: Sundance 2013: Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Nabs 'Austenland' (Exclusive)

On the narrative front, Fruitvale surprised as The Weinstein Co. paid $2.5 million for the quiet drama with a low-profile cast. Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love went to IFC Films, Radius bought the drama Concussion, and UTA’s Rena Ronson orchestrated a bidding war for Jerusha Hess’ Austenland, which went to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions for $4 million-plus. Sony Pictures Classics acquired Kill Your Darlings for just south of $2 million, while CBS Films acquired the coming-of-age drama Toy's House and eOne Distribution paid low seven figures for U.S. rights to the horror film We Are What We Are. A24 bought the high school dramedy The Spectacular Now and Exclusive Releasing made its first-even Sundance purchase with the Naomi Watts-Robin Wright erotic drama Two Mothers

“The hills are alive with film sales,” says Graham Taylor of WME Global, which in addition to Don Jon's Addiction also handled the The Way, Way Back, Fruitvale and We Are What We Are sales. “Sundance has curated a great crop of films this year, hence the dealmaking.”

One buyer said the escalating prices reflect a market correction from the past few recessionary years. "It goes in cycles," this person says. "These high prices come after last year's relatively low minimum guarantees. More importantly, many mini-majors are in dire need of product and have big staffs -- they need the churn."

Also, buyers and sellers alike say that the festival has benefited this year from a particularly strong crop of movies. Indeed, THR has given favorable reviews to acquisitions tiles like Fruitvale, Kill Your Darlings and Blackfish. For example, the THR review of Fruitvale, which is based on the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by a police officer in Oakland, praised the film from director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler as "a debut that delivers significant energy and commitment."

Conversely, some of the acquisition films that did not receive strong reviews featured big-name actors that could appeal to buyers hoping for sizable box-office payoffs. Don Jon's Addiction was termed "crude, repetitive and rigorously single-minded" by THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy, but features a strong cast of Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore.

“There is a certain hype taking over this year,  where buyers are spending wildly for films, ” says one buyer who was empty-handed as of Jan. 21 after being beaten by a distributor willing to plunk down low seven figures for a hot documentary. “You’re seeing a feeling of panic setting in for buyers who think they have to have a film, and have it now.”

As the 2013 iteration of Sundance enters the home stretch, there is an expectation among buyers and sellers on and around Main Street that the closing days of the festival should be filled with a flurry of activity. 

“In terms of buying at the market, it had been steady and consistent the first two or three days, but now it is a mad dash," says Tom Quinn, co-president of Radius. “People have sampled the menu and now they have to order.”


Twitter: @DanielNMiller; @TatianaSiegel27