Sundance waiting for heat

Lacks obvious crowd-pleasers, high-concept pics of years past

The chaotic, snow-filled Sundance Film Festival has long been a test of endurance for members of the film industry, but this year many said it also will be a true test of their acquisition skills. No crowd-pleasing "Little Miss Sunshine" is expected.

There are fewer big stars among the large number of serious indie dramas on the Sundance slate. And after a year when a glut of indie films underperformed at the boxoffice, buyers are approaching the festival warily.

The two films with the biggest buzz, David Wain's Ten Commandments satire "The Ten" and James C. Strouse's family drama "Grace Is Gone," also are two of the biggest question marks. Will the star-filled cast of "Ten" ? which includes Winona Ryder, Paul Rudd, Jessica Alba and Adam Brody ? create a bidding war, or will its episodic structure and Wain's offbeat sensibility (he directed "Wet Hot American Summer") limit its appeal? Will John Cusack's performance in "Gone" prove winning enough to overcome the sad story of a father faced with telling his kids their mom died in the Iraq War?

"Movies this year seem a little darker, and in the indie world that's saying a lot," First Look Pictures president Ruth Vitale said. Festival director Geoff Gilmore agreed that might affect the marketplace. "People might be suffering a fatigue with films that are serious," he said.

One film that's both dark and high concept is Mitchell Lichtenstein's CAA-repped "Teeth." It centers on a Christian high school girl who discovers, when her boyfriend gets too aggressive, that she is anatomically unique. There are rumors that the film might sell before its first screening, though few, if any, have seen the picture.

"Besides 'Teeth' and 'The Ten,' the majority of the films are character-driven pieces," said one buyer, who concurred with many that the strength of this year's lineup will depend on how well executed the films are. "We have to wait and see them play in front of an audience before we make any decisions."

"Ten" executive producer Danny Fisher, the CEO of City Lights Media Group, which is making its first big Sundance splash, is aware of such concerns. "Everyone in the industry has read the script and says it was execution dependent and the movie is better than the script," he said.

"Gone's" first-time director Strouse can almost expect to find himself at the center of the Sundance storm; he already has taken meetings with every top studio specialty division. "It's a modest film made for a modest budget, and the only downside is if expectations build to a level where it disappoints," he said.

Cinetic Media honcho John Sloss, who is selling "Ten" and "Gone," is playing down his 15-picture slate this year. "Is there another 'Little Miss Sunshine'? Not so sure. Home runs? Hard to say ? more like doubles and triples," he said, though at least one acquisition exec suspects that Sloss is downplaying expectations as part of his strategy.

Other buzzed-about features on Cinetic's slate include the opening-night film, the partly animated docu "Chicago 10" from Participant Prods.; Justin Theroux's drama "Dedication," featuring Billy Crudup, Mandy Moore and Tom Wilkinson; the rockumentary "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten"; and the potential sleeper "Starting Out in the Evening," with Frank Langella, Lili Taylor and Lauren Ambrose.

Despite the buyers' caution, many newbies on the scene still are looking to fill their 2007 slates. Endeavor Independent head Graham Taylor, who has been screening the Dan Klores/Fisher Stevens-helmed docu "Crazy Love" in anticipation of a sale, said a lot of new companies will be closing financing and putting deals together. He cited Overture Films, the new film company launched by Liberty Media's Starz, and the newly acquired ThinkFilm as two to watch. Other relatively new or re-engergized companies that are on the hunt include First Look, Paramount Vantage, Netflix, A&E Films and the always-hungry Weinstein Co., which one agent said is making acquisitions its primary strategy.

Even before the festival began, cable channels began nibbling around its edges. The Sundance Channel licensed exclusive U.S. television rights to Jennifer Fox's six-hour autobiographical film "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman," which will debut at the fest. A&E IndieFilms announced a pre-emptive buy of North American television rights for Amir Bar-Lev's docu feature "My Kid Could Paint That," slated to have its world premiere at the fest.

Still, talk to buyers and you will hear kvetching. One of the big criticisms from some buyers is the lack of the high-concept films, like 2005's "March of the Penguins," which earned $78 million domestically for Warner Independent Pictures.

"Few movies have high concepts, and a lot of the documentaries are very heavy and political," Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen said. With the exception of "Fahrenheit 9/11," war-themed docus have not performed strongly at the boxoffice, and several are bowing at Sundance ? among them Rory Kennedy's Iraqi prison scandal examination "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" and Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," which examines how the Bush administration constructed the Iraq War.

Cohen also added that the star power seems to be lacking at this year's fest. "There's no Steve Carell, no Robin Williams and no Michel Gondry," he said.

But ThinkFilm head of U.S. theatrical Mark Urman said: "Stars are very often a poisoned gift. They're very expensive to work with." He added that stars at previous fests such as Naomi Watts ("Ellie Parker") or Courteney Cox ("November") haven't guaranteed success.

While acquisitions execs are concerned that the majority of films available for sale are not equipped with easy marketing hooks, the sellers are trying to send a different message. "There isn't the obvious breakout dramatic comedy or genre film as their was last year with 'Little Miss Sunshine,' " UTA agent Rich Klubeck said. "But there are some really significant films."

Of the five films Klubeck and partner Jeremy Barber are selling, the one entering the festival with the most buzz is "Joshua," an unconventional thriller from George Ratliff, director of the docu "Hell House." Two Spanish-language features ? Jorge Hernandez Aldana's "The Night Buffalo," starring Diego Luna, and first-time feature director Christopher Zalla's thriller "Padre Nuestro" ? also are on his slate.

"Business seems to be going our way right now," said Cassian Elwes, co-head of William Morris Independent. "The studios are making less movies, and there is less interesting work out there for top actors. We're seeing a lot more good actors going indie as that's where the roles are. At the end of the day, it's about the stars, and that's where they are right now."

Elwes and partner Ronson are involved with 11 films, including "The Good Life," featuring Zooey Deschanel, Bill Paxton and Drea de Matteo; "Chapter 27" (co-repped with CAA), starring Jared Leto as John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman; and "If I Were a Genius," starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Stone.

Where some distributors see a crowded marketplace with less obvious buys as a detriment, others see opportunity and lower bidding wars.

"There are not a lot of films with distributors, and there are more sellers than in the past," Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard said. "Not many people have cornered the market, and that's great."

There are several promising titles, including the Celluloid Dreams-repped '80s flashback "Son of Rambow," the CAA-repped space docu "In the Shadow of the Moon" and the controversial Southern gothic tale tentatively titled "Hounddog," starring Dakota Fanning, with subject matter that both intrigues and scares buyers.

For those willing to search a bit, there are surprises to be found, said an enthusiastic John Cooper, director of programming. "This year is more about the quality of filmmakers and discovery," he said. "I usually say that because I think I should, but this year I actually believe it."

Gregg Goldstein reported from New York; Nicole Sperling reported from Los Angeles.