Every year, the Sundance Film Festival holds a few surprises — startling new artistic voices and performances and an eye-opening acquisition price. But the market aspect of the festival may be the one thing that’s suddenly become pretty predictable. And that’s a good sign.
“From a pricing perspective, I think the market is balanced,” says Preferred Content managing partner Kevin Iwashina, who is repping sales on six films in play this year. “There are always going to be those one, two or three crazy things that happen. But people generally believe the slate is strong at Sundance this year and people are optimistic to see the movies.”
Since the 2007-08 economic crash, the closing of a string of key specialty distributors and the uncertainty about the future that shook the indie ranks, the various players have spent the last few years adjusting. New buyers popped up, budgets became smarter, deals had more reasonable expectations attached to them. This last round of festivals, beginning with Sundance a year ago, has proven that the industry has stabilized at a healthier level.
A major reason for this is that the lines between distributors mostly have dissolved, resulting in a much wider, looser number of options for films of any size and structure — from a traditional platform release through Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features or The Weinstein Co. to the pioneers of digital distribution at IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures and a host of new shops increasingly designed to meet any need.
Anchor Bay, RADiUS-TWC, Open Road, CBS Films, FilmDistrict, Lionsgate, Cinedigm, Roadside Attractions and many others can go from the wide-release approach through to day-and-date splits and VOD only. The models are still evolving, but the upshot is that the industry is finding a greater number of reasons and ways to back indie films.
“There’s no reason not to be optimistic,” says co-head UTA Independent Film Group Rich Klubeck, who with partner Rena Ronson will be leading sales on 11 films. “If you look at last year, pretty much everybody had a big indie hit, whether it was acquired or self-generated at a studio.”
Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” was the big hit for Focus, while Fox Searchlight did well with both acquisitions (“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Sessions”) and homegrown projects (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”). Meanwhile, RADiUS-TWC made a decent run with 2012 pick-up “Bachelorette,” though revenue was heavily weighted toward VOD, and Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate repeated their “Margin Call” (2011) magic with the 2012 buy “Arbitrage.”
“We’ve done a lot of deals in that day-and-date space,” says head of international and independent filmat ICM Partners Jessica Lacy, who will be repping sales on the indies “A Teacher,” “This Is Martin Bonner” and “Metro Manila” at the fest. “It is easier to have that conversation with your filmmakers, with your investors and with your talent now that there’s real data and there are some very successful examples to cite. Filmmakers are much more open to these models, because it incorporates the best of both worlds: you’re getting your film out to the widest possible audience, and you’re also seeing the financial benefits of it. It really makes it an attractive model.”
Two especially intriguing mysteries at this year’s Sundance are the arrival of A24 and Picturehouse. A24, co-founded by Oscilloscope Laboratories’ David Fenkel, grabbed rights to Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa” out of Toronto and Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” earlier this week. Depending on whom you ask, the new company is either gunning to compete with arthouse heavy hitters SPC, TWC and Searchlight; in the market for the wide-release projects Open Road and FilmDistrict target; or a hybrid that retains the flexibility of IFC, Magonlia and RADiUS. Regardless, Fenkel is aiming bigger than the fare he was able to deliver through Oscilloscope, and sellers expect A24 to be hungry in Park City.
And there may be no greater sign of the indie industry’s rebound than the reboot of Picturehouse, Bob and Jeanne Berney’s art shop that turned out “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “La vie en rose” before being shuttered in 2008. This time, they’re heading into Sundance with renewed energy and an output deal with Netflix.
The Weinstein Co. and Fox Searchlight laid low throughout Toronto, so they are likely to be active, as well as Cinedigm, which began ramping up its buys there. Focus snatched up “The Place Beyond the Pines” at Toronto, so it may be even more hesitant than usual at Sundance this year. But the roster of active distributors has widened and deepened to such an extent that the quantity of pick-ups out of the festival is likely to continue growing.
“It will be an active market,” says Lacy.
Among the hottest available titles are Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writing-directing debut “Don Jon’s Addiction,” Lynn Shelton’s “Touchy Feely,” Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s comedy “The Way, Way Back,” David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche,” James Ponsoldt’s “The Spectacular Now,” John Krokidas’ “Kill Your Darlings” and David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which is at the top of many players’ must-see lists. The horror anthology “S-VHS” is sure to find a home, as is “Lovelace,” which even if critically drubbed will find a willing buyer who can spin its titillating content to pleasant grosses on VOD.
As with last year’s program, there is also an incredible cross-section of work from women directors telling female-centric stories that could end up breaking out: Liz W. Garcia’s “The Lifeguard,” Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher,” Naomi Foner’s “Very Good Girls,” Stacey Passon’s “Concussion,” Francesca Gregorini’s “Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes,” Jill Soloway’s “Afternoon Delight,” Jerusha Hess’s “Austenland,” Lake Bell’s “In a World…,” Alicia Scherson’s “The Future” and Eliza Hittman’s “It Felt Like Love.”
Along with other strong, original filmmakers such as Drake Doremus (“Breathe In), Matthew Porterfield (“I Used to Be Darker”), Andrew Bujalksi (“Computer Chess”), Sebastian Silva (“Magic Magic,” “Crystal Fairy”) and Calvin Lee Reeder (“The Rambler”) the Sundance cupboard is overstocked and ready to deliver some of the freshest voices in cinema throughout the year.