What if Sundance isn't about the sales anymore?

Thu Jan 8, 2009 4:24am EST
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By Steven Zeitchik

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - One of the most promising indie films this winter features several stars and already has buyers circling. It sounds like a top Sundance Film Festival hopeful, except for one thing -- it isn't going to Sundance.

"My One and Only," a period romantic dramedy starring Renee Zellweger and Kevin Bacon, has been screening for buyers the past few weeks in the hope of sealing a deal before the first parkas are zipped up in Utah on January 15. The film, about a 1950s single mother in search of a wealthy suitor, is classic Sundance bait, but filmmakers and reps decided against taking the mid-range-budgeted film to Park City.

Instead, they believe a more deliberate rollout to buyers will serve the film's interests better than a high-profile fest screening. While they might be sacrificing the chance for a bidding war, they also avoid the possibility that the movie's value will plummet if that first screening doesn't start a fire -- in other words, if it plays like most festival movies have this past year.

"You take a movie to Sundance, there's an expectation," says a sales agent at another firm. "You're running uphill. Show a movie in L.A. and you're running downhill."

There are, to be sure, movies with the requisite big names and big promise coming to Park City this year. A Jim Carrey comedy drama ("I Love You Phillip Morris") and an Antoine Fuqua cop thriller ("Brooklyn's Finest") could easily have been studio movies, but because of plot particulars (gay themes and grittiness, respectively) became Sundance acquisition targets. Ashton Kutcher's off-kilter raunch comedy "Spread" and Kevin Spacey's drama "Shrink" also have strong prefestival hype.

If things break right, movies like these could provoke pricey bids from studios looking to avoid the creative risks -- and production costs -- of making the films themselves.

But if these titles don't ignite bidding wars -- which, given the recent state of the indie marketplace, wouldn't be surprising -- the disappointment could accelerate a shift toward the "One and Only" model.

"We're starting to screen stuff more and more outside of festivals," said attorney John Sloss, who brokers deals through his Cinetic Media firm. This in part, he says, because "I'm more unsure about the market than I've ever been."   Continued...

<p>Cast member Renee Zellweger poses at the premiere of "Leatherheads" at the Grauman's Chinese theatre in Hollywood, California March 31, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>