Did Sundance Buyers Overpay?

Grove Hill Productions

This year’s festival saw plenty of sales. But were the deals good?

It seems everyone but the bouncer at Harry O’s bought a film at Sundance this year, as the hyperactive market capped a year of striking recovery in the independent space. But with more than two dozen movies finding distribution during a frenzied 10 days in Park City, more than a few indie veterans have doubts. Were buyers actually making good deals? And with many small, difficult films finding homes, will those investments pay off with audiences?

“Some deals don’t make sense,” says Magnolia Pictures acquisitions exec Tom Quinn, who picked up U.S. rights to Mark Pellington’s dark drama I Melt With You and the documentary Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times. “Some of it is reminiscent of a far more foolish time.”

Quinn is making reference to the heady days only a few years ago, when buyers overpaid for such films as Hamlet 2 ($10 million) and Son of Rambow ($8 million), which tanked in theaters. The consensus is that this year’s booming Sundance market was powered in part by a high-quality program but also the recent uptick at the specialty box office and such breakout hits as Black Swan, The King’s Speech and The Kids Are All Right, which Focus Features picked up for $4 million at last year’s festival.

Time will tell whether Paramount and Indian Paintbrush’s $4 million bet on the small relationship drama Like Crazy will pay off. Quinn credits Focus for taking a gamble this year on Pariah, a drama about an inner-city girl coming to terms with her lesbianism. “The hope is that they’re rewarded,” he says. “That is a really tough part of our business — the awards-driven, exclusively art business. But it’s also the most rewarding when it takes off.”

The $6 million the Weinstein Co. paid for My Idiot Brother — bringing Ron Burkle in to assist financially — could be a good play because the comedy plays broadly and has a known cast (Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks) that can attract audiences outside the art house. And the Weinsteins might have made a huge $7 million to $8 million commitment to the Tobey Maguire black comedy The Details, but they got worldwide rights to a film with a global star.

Some of the riskier deals were for more traditionally indie-minded filmmaking, such as the dramas Martha Marcy May Marlene (less than $2 million) and Another Earth (about $1 million), both picked up by Fox Searchlight.

“Those prices are being amortized by the fact that they’re buying worldwide rights and are able to recoup through the studio’s international output deals,” Roadside Attractions exec Dustin Smith says. “But it’s still really exciting to see huge companies rolling the dice on films not because of their genre or cast, but just because they’re great movies.”

Indeed, while some raised eyebrows at the dollar figures being thrown around Main Street during the festival, insiders say the headlines can be deceiving.

“No one is doing anything illogical,” says sales agent Kevin Iwashina of Preferred Content, who sold Another Earth with WME Global and The Ledge to IFC Films with Cassian Elwes. “On paper, the deals look bigger than they are. The math all works out.” The worldwide deal for Another Earth, for instance, included a $2.75 million advance, a North American theatrical commitment and TV output deals to push the sci-fi drama to global audiences.

“Searchlight taking on Martha Marcy May Marlene and Another Earth and Focus buying Pariah are definite changes in direction versus the glossier, cast-driven films they’ve been buying over the past few years,” Smith says. “That change is great news for indie filmmakers everywhere. They’re showing you don't have to have Natalie Portman in your movie for these big studio arms to be interested.” 

UTA Tops Sundance Sales

Sundance dealmaking was heated this year, but UTA’s indie film group was on fire. Co-heads Rich Klubeck and Rena Ronson, along with film group agents David Flynn and Bec Smith, closed sales on nine of its 14 pictures — two-thirds of them repped solo — in six days. “We had a good Sundance, for sure,” UTA partner Jeremy Zimmer says. “There was a real opportunity in the true independent space. It was a priority at the agency from top to bottom.” A former co-head of William Morris Independent, Ronson joined UTA in late 2009 and has worked with Klubeck to package the vast majority of the agency’s festival slate. CAA, Submarine and others also had big festivals, but UTA’s results were unprecedented: at least $26 million in upfront fees, each generating variable commissions.

DEALS OF THE WEEK: Who bought what in Park City

Another Earth | Fox Searchlight (about $1 mil); Dir. Mike Cahill; Cast: Brit Marling

The Details | Weinstein Co. ($7 mil-$8 mil); Dir. Jacob Aaron Estes; Cast: Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks

The Devil’s Double | Lionsgate (n/a); Dir. Lee Tamahori; Cast: Dominic Cooper

The Future | Roadside (n/a); Dir. Miranda July; Cast: Miranda July, Hamish Linklater

The Guard | Sony Pictures Classics (close to $1 mil); Dir. John Michael McDonagh; Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle

Homework | Fox Searchlight ($3 mil-plus); Dir. Gavin Wiesen; Cast: Emma Roberts, Freddie Highmore

I Melt with You | Magnolia (less than $1 mil); Dir. Mark Pellington; Cast: Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven

The Ledge | IFC ($1 mil-plus); Dir. Matthew Chapman; Cast: Liv Tyler, Charlie Hunnam

Like Crazy | Paramount/Indian Paintbrush ($4 mil); Dir. Drake Doremus; Cast: Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones

Margin Call | Roadside/Lionsgate (less than $2 mil); Dir. J.C. Chandor; Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons

Martha Marcy May Marlene | Fox Searchlight (less than $2 mil); Dir. Sean Durkin; Cast: Elizabeth Olsen

My Idiot Brother | Weinstein Co. (about $6 mil); Dir. Jesse Peretz; Cast: Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks

Pariah | Focus Features (less than $1 mil); Dir. Dee Rees; Cast: Adepero Oduye

Perfect Sense | IFC Films (n/a); Dir. David Mackenzie; Cast: Ewan McGregor, Eva Green

Red State | Kevin Smith ($20); Dir. Kevin Smith; Cast: Michael Angarano, Michael Parks

Salvation Boulevard | IFC/Sony (about $1.5 mil); Dir. George Ratliff; Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear

Silent House | Liddell Entertainment ($3 mil); Dirs. Chris Kentis, Laura Lau; Cast: Elizabeth Olsen

Take Shelter | Sony Pictures Classics (n/a); Dir. Jeff Nichols; Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain