Good Buzz, Tough Market; A Sales Overview for Sundance 2003
by Matthew Ross
The early buzz in the acquisitions sector about the films on tap for the 2003 Sundance Film Festival is as positive as it has been in years. But that doesn’t mean anything. In the first place, as any Park City veteran will tell you, predictions are worthless until the films have been screened in front of an audience. In the second, good buzz, or good films, may not necessarily translate into lots of sales.
That being said, Sundance director Geoff Gilmore assured indieWIRE that, “the acquisitions community has been saying a lot of positive things about this year’s festival,” a slate which includes a number of star-driven titles from top Indiewood producers like Killer Films, IFC Productions, Indigent, and ContentFilm. And others in the industry agree that this year’s overall selection has a great chance of creating a busy market.
“No one has seen every film at Sundance except the Sundance staff, but there’s every indication that 2003 will be strong,” says Micah Green of Cinetic Media, the premiere New York-based sales rep firm that will be taking seven films to Sundance, including “Prey for Rock & Roll,” “Girls Will be Girls,” “Pieces of April,” “Capturing the Friedmans,” “The Station Agent,” “Quattro Noza,” and the foreign rights to “Party Monster.”
“I always think it’s dangerous to try to project the quality of the films or how active the festival’s going to be in advance,” says Artisan executive VP Patrick Gunn. “I was among the group last year that thought it was going to be a so-so kind of year. And there ended up being a lot of sales activity.” The sales figures last year were indeed impressive and surprising. Contrary to low expectations going in, more films were picked up at Sundance 2002 than in any year since 1996, including the reported $5 million Miramax ponied up for director Gary Winick’s DV comedy, “Tadpole.”
While the U.S. theatrical market did perform well last year overall, the financial outlook in the specialty sector remains cautious. With the smaller distributors struggling against the ever-growing pressure of making things happen on opening weekend, many companies have tightened the reigns, choosing to buy fewer films than they would have several years ago.
“One thing we learned last year is that you’re better off not doing a movie just for the hell of it — you really have to care,” says ThinkFilm’s head of U.S. distribution Mark Urman, who picked up three films in Park City in 2002. “The market is much tougher and more Darwinian. There used to be a certain kind of American movie that that you could always depend on at the box office, and those kinds of movies don’t work right now. There will be films that won’t be picked up by anybody this year that in years past would have been acquired.”
Compounding the issue is the fact that a number of smaller outfits already have a number of acquisitions that are awaiting release in 2003. Of the distributors indieWIRE spoke with, none said that they absolutely needed to pick up a film at Sundance in order to fill their slate. “We’re in negotiation with three [non-Sundance] films right now, which hopefully should be complete in the next couple of weeks,” said Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles. “I think if you go on preconceived notions that you have to pick up a film, then you’ll make a bad decision.”
In addition, many distributors will also be busy using Sundance promoting films they have already acquired at other festivals rather than only focusing on picking up new work. Newmarket Films, for example, will be promoting the U.S. release of three recent acquisitions (“Open Hearts,” “Whale Rider,” and “Spun”) while at Park City. “We’re going to be busy with the titles we have,” said Newmarket Films president Bob Berney. “But it would be great to come out of Sundance with one new title that we really love.”
The cautious attitude among the smaller outfits may be offset by the buying power of Sundance-friendly mini-majors like Miramax and Fox Searchlight, the introduction of several new distributors into the fray (most notably Focus Features and Newmarket) as well as activity among foreign buyers. Last year, Sundance opened an official sales office in order to promote business and provide resources among the increasing number of visitors from abroad. “There has been a group of high quality international documentary buyers coming in, and that’s very good for us,” says Jan Rofekamp of FilmsTransit, a documentary sales rep company that specializes in international sales. Rofekamp will be handling four of the competition docs.
In other words, the field is wide open and completely unpredictable, just like it is every year. “In 10 of the 12 years that I’ve been at Sundance,” says Sundance director Geoff Gilmore, “acquisitions executives have come in and said it would be a terrible year and there would be nothing to buy. And I think in 9 of those 10 years, the market just popped, and deals were going on all over the place.
“I have lots of films every year that don’t get acquired that are oftentimes among my favorites,” Gilmore adds. “But if everybody is going to be looking for the next ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ they are going to be as sorely disappointed as they were when they were looking for the next ‘Blair Witch Project.’“