Sundance docus steal early show


UPDATED 7:14 p.m. PT Jan. 20

PARK CITY -- Documentaries stole the show at the Sundance Film Festival over the weekend.

The most-hyped feature films, meanwhile -- including the Playtone production "The Great Buck Howard" and the Barry Levinson Hollywood dramedy "What Just Happened?" -- failed to ignite overwhelming enthusiasm or bidding wars.

The stir over the docus defied pundits who had predicted that distributors would be cool to the category after such big Sundance docu acquisitions from last year as "Crazy Love" and "My Kid Could Paint That" failed to live up to expectations.

Bidding reached the $2 million-$3 million range for Nanette Burstein's narrative-driven docu "American Teen." Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage and a number of other players were said to be in the mix for the A&E Indie Films production, which examines assorted high-school seniors in Indiana. CAA and Cinetic are selling the film.

Meanwhile, Marina Zerovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," which takes a second look at the helmer's statutory rape trial, sold in a split international/domestic deal. HBO picked up all U.S. rights, with the net's docu division handling television. A theatrical release is still to be determined. The Weinstein Co. scooped up all international rights except U.K. TV.

The bidding, which ended early Sunday morning, came down to HBO, ThinkFilm and Roadside Attractions, with Netflix, A&E and the History Channel attempting various partnerships with theatrical distributors. Sarah Lash of Cinetic and Josh Braun of Submarine handled the deal for the filmmakers.

ESPN scored Susan Koch's soccer docu "Kicking It," which follows seven homeless players from around the world who compete in the fourth annual Homeless World Cup. It was produced by AOL vice chairman emeritus Ted Leonsis (last year's Sundance winner "Nanking"). ESPN will handle worldwide TV and digital distribution, and will aim to secure outside theatrical and ancillary distribution with the help of CAA and Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment. Leonsis and exec producer Rick Allen repped the ESPN deal.

Other docus creating late acquisitions buzz included the Hurricane Katrina-themed "Trouble the Water" and Peter Galison and Robb Moss' national security expose "Secrecy."

The big docu news only partly concealed what had been lackluster performances for some of the bigger titles. On Saturday, one of the most expensive movies ever to come to Sundance played to one of the most distributor-heavy screenings ever to hit the festival.

Buyers from pretty much every major company turned out for Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened?" the serio-comic study of a studio producer (Robert De Niro) plagued by personal and professional issues over the course of one turbulent week. The movie, loosely based on producer Art Linson's memoir, is co-repped by Cinetic and CAA. It entered the festival with buzz that it could sell for a significant sum and could possibly even go to a studio division hungry for material during the strike.

2929 Entertainment, which produced the film, hopes to replicate its success from last year's Festival de Cannes success, when it sold James Gray's period cop-drama "Who Owns the Night" to Columbia for a reported $11.5 million.

But reactions among a number of buyers surveyed as they exited the theater were mixed, and the talk shifted Sunday to more jockeying with studios and specialty divisions and, with the passing hours, a lower price than some had expected.

Besides the many film execs, the screening also included outgoing Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons. When asked whether he thought Warner Bros. could board the project, Parsons said, "I really think it's more of a New Line kind of movie."

Another film that failed to meet its pre-fest hype was "Howard," which screened in Salt Lake on Friday and in Park City on Saturday but had failed to ignite buyers.

Reaction was mixed to Big Beach Films' "Sunshine Cleaning," despite the presence of bankable stars Amy Ryan and Emily Blunt and the pedigree of Big Beach (the producers of "Little Miss Sunshine"). But several contenders from some specialty divisions, including Focus Features and Fox Searchlight, could find the film a home by Monday.

Meanwhile, the Jonathan Levine coming-of-age drama/stoner comedy "The Wackness" generated some interest, though its multiple hooks and potential marketing angles were an asset to some and a drawback to others. Warner Independent Pictures, Overture Films and Sony Pictures Classics have all expressed interest.

Geoff Haley's dark comedy "The Last Word," starring Winona Ryder, Wes Bentley and Ray Romano, looked likely to go to ThinkFilm unless offers unexpectedly picked up. It was produced by the distributor's new parent company, Capitol.

Other slow burns included Michael Keaton's understated romantic fable "The Merry Gentleman," which many top buyers didn't get a chance to see when it screened opposite "Sunshine Cleaning." Sean Ellis' "Broken" also stirred some distributor interest.

Sales firm Celluloid Dreams was able to cut several foreign rights deals for "The Wave," directed by Dennis Gansel. Alliance Films acquired the rights for Canada, while Momentum Pictures will release in the U.K., and Aurum will handle Spain.

On the Internet front, new site acquired digital rights to 20 foreign-language titles from Pyramide International.

Distribution execs were divided on why dealmaking was so slow. Some pointed to the quality of the films, while others said there were disagreements over asking prices and that these differences could take several days to be reconciled.

"Distributors are concerned about the press hype over films last year that didn't perform at the boxoffice," said Cinetic founder John Sloss, but he predicted the market would pick up in the next few days. And at least one specialty division buyer concurred, saying the holes in some of the bigger distributors' schedules could fuel late-fest buys despite some early hesitation.