January 8, 2009 / 9:26 AM / 10 years ago

What if Sundance isn't about the sales anymore?

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.

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

“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.”

Sloss this year opted to take James Ivory’s new film to execs directly instead of taking it to Park City. Sony Pictures Classics began negotiating to acquire “Rudo y Cursi,” a Spanish-language film directed by Carlos Cuaron and starring Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, more than a week before its planned Sundance premiere.

The new attitudes are enough to cause sellers and distributors to start asking what was an unthinkable question even a few years ago: What if Sundance isn’t about the sales anymore?

“There’s nothing that says that Sundance has to be the Andover or Exeter for the specialty film business’s Harvards and Yales,” says longtime producer and sales rep Jonathan Dana.

Recent history suggests that the Ivy League of distributors is indeed looking elsewhere. There wasn’t a Sundance box office hit to be found last year, and the two major sales — “Hamlet 2,” which went to Focus Features, and “Choke,” which Fox Searchlight bought — both underperformed.

In fact, there hasn’t been a robust festival market by conventional definitions since Cannes in 2007 (though Toronto pickups like “The Visitor” last year and “The Wrestler” this year have provided glimmers of hope). In the meantime, many specialty divisions have either closed or cut back.

Add it all up, and many are drastically downsizing their expectations before they arrive in Park City. “There may be three or four big sales — or there may barely be one,” says one acquisitions exec. “Neither would surprise me.”

The reason to expect a chillier sales climate has as much to do with production trends as it does the market itself. The indie world is already beginning to see filmmaking contract as financiers cut back amid the economic and credit crises. The prospect of lower sales returns at festival markets might shrink ambitions even further.

“If there are people paying $200,000 for the rights to a movie, then some of those movies can no longer be made, or they have to be made for $200,000,” says Sundance veteran Mark Urman, president of distribution at Senator. “Which means a lot of Sundance staples may no longer get made.”

Those that do could soon have a tougher time not just finding a sale, but finding a sales agent. One sales rep says he turned down a dark film even though the director has a stellar reputation. “In earlier years, I would have been all over it like a cheap suit,” the agent says. “Now I’m hoping it goes to another rep. It was not an easy sell whatsoever in good times. It certainly won’t be now.”

The rhythms of the calendar and fest organizers’ sharp eye for quality assures that there will always be sales at Sundance. But it might be that the business is entering a phase in which debuts are measured not in terms of their dollar value, but in the value of their discovery.

Two of the most prominent movies to emerge from the festival last year were “Frozen River” and “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” The former announced the arrival of talent like director Courtney Hunt and star Melissa Leo; the latter has had an enduring cultural life, bolstering the reputation of director Marina Zenovich and having an impact on Polanski’s long-running court case.

Sony Pictures Classics and the team of HBO/ThinkFilm, which acquired the respective pictures for modest price tags, will both earn decent ancillary revenue from their purchases, if not overwhelming box office.

But what these breakouts show is that the fest’s main value might now lie in the classic indie model, in which little money is spent and little is earned. The payoff comes in the form of critical cachet and awards, not in a “Little Miss Sunshine”-style plug-and-play blockbuster. It’s a switch that takes the fest back to its emergence two decades ago, when movies like “sex, lies & videotape” were championed not as possible crossover hits but as giving rise to directorial talent and even a new style of filmmaking.

Such a shift would dovetail, in a sense, with the festival’s own ambitions. While organizers haven’t voiced outright opposition to the sales market as they have with swag and ambush marketing, they have had an ambivalent relationship with it: Organizers like the heat and industry attendance it brings but privately worry that it puts the emphasis on the big sale instead of the great film.

If Sundance were to return to its roots, documentaries could be the canary in this coal mine. Gone is the market of even two years ago, when compelling nonfiction stories like “My Kid Could Paint That” or “In the Shadow of the Moon” drew bidders who readily paid $1.5 million or $2 million for the right to release them. (Last year’s lone big documentary sale, the $700,000-priced “American Teen,” sank at the box office for Paramount Vantage, which could further cool this year’s market.)

Still, Sundance offers plenty of movies that could get small distributors and cinephiles excited, from Tom DiCillo’s documentary on the Doors (“When You’re Strange”) to the Fisher Stevens-produced environmental mystery “The Cove.” They probably won’t sell for a lot, but they might be the titles that this year’s fest is remembered for.

Changes are afoot all over Park City. Just ask Jeffrey Best, who for years operated swag suites at the centrally located Town Lift but who this year will run a toned-down site in official conjunction with the festival there instead.

“It’s necessary to change the model to stand out in a cluttered environment,” says Best, a man who once helped cultivate the corporate and celebrity sides of Sundance. This year, Best is offering less flash and more substance. Outside the Lift, expect the same.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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