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Bring On the Bidding Wars: 14 Movies That Could Sell Big at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

These 14 hot titles from the Sundance lineup could be prime targets for distributors.

Mudbound

“Mudbound”

Courtesy of Sundance

Bidding wars have already begun for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Buyers snapped up six titles in the days leading up to the fest, including one that A24 purchased sight unseen: David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Other movies acquired in the past two weeks are “Berlin Syndrome” (Netflix), “Call Me By Your Name” (Sony Pictures Classics), “Casting JonBenet” (Netflix), “Cries From Syria” (HBO for television rights) and “Long Strange Trip” (Amazon).

READ MORE: Sundance 2017: Netflix, Vertical Acquire ‘Berlin Syndrome’

With 120 features playing at Sundance, there are plenty of hot titles remaining for acquisition executives, though it will be tough for any film to exceed last year’s $17.5 million purchase of “The Birth of a Nation” by Fox Searchlight, the biggest deal in the festival’s history.

Which movies are likely to have buyers lining up in the cold this year? Here are 14 hot titles that could be prime targets.

“The Big Sick”

Section: Premieres

Synopsis: Director Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick” is based on the real-life courtship between Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, who wrote the script together. When the aspiring comedian Kumail and grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) fall in love, their relationship leads to a rift with Kumail’s traditional Muslim parents. Emily then discovers she has a mysterious illness, leaving Kumail to navigate the medical crisis with her parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

Sales Pitch: This is the Sundance movie that looks like the obvious buy. With Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel as producers, it suggests all the catnip adjectives:  funny, crowdpleasing, commercial, marketable, well-made. And then there’s the cast — while Kazan, Romano, and Hunter are the most familiar names, Nanjiani is known for his role on “Silicon Valley” and it co-stars Bollywood legend Anupam Kher. Showalter’s previous film, “Hello My Name Is Doris,” led to a rare SXSW bidding war, and was one of last year’s specialty success stories with more than $14 million at the U.S box office.

Sales contact: Filmnation/UTA

“Newness”

Courtney Eaton Nicholas Hoult Newness

“Newness”

Scott Free Productions

Section: Premieres

Synopsis: A last-minute addition to Sundance, Drake Doremus’s “Newness” stars Nicholas Hoult and Laia Costa as a couple in contemporary Los Angeles navigating the world of online dating and social media-driven hookup culture. The film is Doremus’ fourth movie to premiere in Park City, after “Douchebag,” “Like Crazy,” and “Breathe In.”

Sales Pitch: “Newness” has been likened to Millennial version of “Like Crazy” that shines a light on the constantly evolving world of online dating apps. The film could attract the same type of buyers that swarmed “Like Crazy,” which Paramount bought for a reported $4 million.

Sales contact: UTA

“Mudbound”

Section: Premieres

Synopsis: The second feature from writer-director Dee Rees after 2011’s “Pariah” — which also premiered at Sundance and took home the cinematography award — “Mudbound” follows two men who return home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi and struggle to deal with racism. The film was co-written by Virgil Williams.

Sales Pitch: The film represents a major step forward in Rees’s career thanks in part to it’s great cast of Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund (“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”), Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke and Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”). The larger scale production, coupled with a topical theme and a director on the rise, is sure to generate significant interest among buyers.

Sales contact: WME

“Landline”

Section: U.S Dramatic Competition

Synopsis: Writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s follow-up to 2014’s “Obvious Child” is another starring vehicle for comedy it-girl Jenny Slate, and has a strong cast in John Turturo, Edie Falco and indie film multi-hyphenate Jay Duplass. The story focuses on two sisters in ’90s New York who discover their father’s affair at a time when cell phones don’t yet exist.

Sales Pitch: “Landline” will attract lot of interest from buyers simply because of how well “Obvious Child” did. Made for around $500,000, “Obvious Child” took in more than $3 million at the box office. (The film was acquired by A24 out of Sundance three years ago.) This time around, Slate has a an even stronger supporting cast around her, including newcomer Abby Quinn in a breakthrough role.

Sales contact: UTA

“The Hero”

The Hero

“The Hero”

Courtesy of Sundance

Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition

Synopsis: “The Hero” stars Sam Elliott as Lee Hayden, an iconic Western singer whose best performances are decades behind him. His daily routine of reliving the glory days with his “former-co-star-turned-dealer” Jeremy (Nick Offerman) is upended when he receives a cancer diagnosis. Krysten Ritter and Laura Prepon co-star.

Sales Pitch: Writer-director Brett Haley’s previous film “I’ll See You In My Dreams” entered last year’s Sundance very quietly before emerging as one of the most commercially successful films from the festival, taking in $7.5 million at the box office. “The Hero” is an actor’s showcase that’s been generating much more buzz, thanks in part to early word of mouth. The legendary Sam Elliott has a rare late-career starring role in the movie, which could generate awards traction.

Sales contact: WME/Gersh

“City of Ghosts”

Section: U.S. Documentary Competition

Synopsis: Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Matt Heineman continues to court danger with his new documentary, “City of Ghosts,” which focuses on a group of anonymous citizen journalists who banded together after their homeland was overtaken by ISIS.

Sales Pitch: Heineman is a Sundance regular who won the festival’s Directing Award last year for “Cartel Land,” about the drug problem on the U.S.-Mexico border. That film was acquired shortly after the festival by The Orchard, and distributors are sure to line up for Heineman’s follow up, which tackles the even more terrifying subject of ISIS and terrorism.

Sales contact: Cinetic Media

“Wind River”

Section: Premieres

Synopsis: The Jeremy Renner-starring thriller co-stars Elizabeth Olsen and Jon Bernthal and centers on a Fish and Game Department employee (Renner) who finds a dead teenage girl in the woods and works with an FBI agent (Olsen) to find those responsible for her death.

Sales Pitch: Though the Weinstein Company reportedly paid somewhere in the mid-seven figures for “Wind River” out of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the company recently put the movie back on the market. “Wind River” marks the directorial debut for “Hell or High Water” writer Taylor Sheridan. Buyers will likely swarm this title, as “Hell or High Water” finished the year with $27 million at the U.S. box office, more than any other indie title in 2016.

Sales contact: CAA

“The New Radical”

Section: U.S. Documentary Competition

Synopsis: Award-winning director Adam Bhala Lough’s “The New Radicals” follows crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson, who co-founded the Bitcoin app Dark Wallet and landed on the U.S. government’s watchlist after making a 3-D printed gun. The film looks at Millennials in the U.S. and U.K. who risk incarceration to fight for freedom of information and challenge economic structures.

Sales Pitch: A documentary in the vein of “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” this film offers a rare window into how young, radical thinkers are pushing the boundaries of what you can do with free speech using the internet, something rarely seen in film. The doc’s controversial subject matter and exploration of though-provoking issues will help attract strong interest from buyers.

Sales contact:  WME

“Step”

Step

“Step”

Courtesy of Sundance

Section: U.S. Documentary Competition

Synopsis: The directorial debut for Tony Award–winning producer Amanda Lipitz, “Step” follows three high school seniors in inner-city Baltimore and their step dance team, “Lethal Ladies.” Members of the founding class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, these dancers are determined to live up to their school’s founding mandate of sending every graduate to college.

Sales Pitch: “Step” is reportedly in the vein of Oscar-winner (and Sundance premiere) “20 Feet From Stardom” in that it’s crafted very artfully but also features a universal story about women of color and female empowerment. It’s exactly the kind of documentary that audiences line up for at Sundance, including buyers eager for accessible crowdpleasers.

Sales contact: WME

“Icarus”

Section: U.S. Documentary Competition

Synopsis: The feature-length documentary debut from Byran Fogel (“Jewtopia”), “Icarus” was conceived as an experiment to test the impact of performance-enhancing drugs. The film takes a significant turn when Fogel connects with Russian scientist and the former chief of the country’s antidoping lab, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov.

Sales Pitch: “Icarus” plays like a suspense thriller within a feature documentary. One early viewer described it as starting like a Morgan Spurlock movie and ending like a Laura Poitras movie — mainly, “Citizenfour,” which was an explosive release that ultimately won the Oscar. With those sort of expectations, it’s easy to assume buyers will line up to see Bryan Fogel uncover one of the biggest scandals in sports history.

Sales contact:  UTA

“Thoroughbred”

Thoroughbred

“Thoroughbred”

Courtesy of Sundance

Section: NEXT

Synopsis: The debut film from acclaimed playwright Cory Finley, “Thoroughbred” centers on suburban Connecticut teens Amanda and Lily, recently united childhood friends who hatch a sinister plan to kill Lily’s stepfather. The film stars Anya Taylor Joy, Olivia Cooke and the late Anton Yelchin in a supporting role.

Sales Pitch: “Thoroughbred” has attracted significant buzz among buyers thanks to its leading cast of Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”) and Olivia Cooke (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”). The film was also produced by B-Story, one of the companies behind “Manchester by the Sea,” which sold to Amazon for around $10 million at last year’s festival.

Sales contact: WME/ICM

“The Polka King”

Section: Premieres

Synopsis: This comedy from co-directors Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky tells the true story of Polish émigré Jan Lewan, who rose from a lowly tchotchke store owner to become the “King of Pennsylvania Polka” and the creator of the only known Polka Ponzi Scheme in history. The film stars Jack Black as Lewan, Jenny Slate as his wife Marla and Jason Schwartzman as his sidekick Mickey.

Sales Pitch: Jack Black delivers amazing performances in comedic roles that revolve around music, but “The Polka King” is a particularly hot contender thanks to its little-known true story. Forbes and Wolodarsky previously collaborated on the 2014 Sundance entry “Infinitely Polar Bear,” which was purchased by Sony Pictures Classics.

Sales contact: ICM

“Fun Mom Dinner”

Fun Mom Dinner

“Fun Mom Dinner”

Courtesy of Sundance

Section: Premieres

Synopsis: This comedy follows high-powered lawyer and mother Emily (Katie Aselton) and a group of friends who take a break from their full time jobs as moms to have a wild night out on the town. The film stars Toni Collette, Molly Shannon, and Bridget Everett as moms who party hard while also making “tearful revelations” and trading dick jokes.

Sales Pitch: “Fun Mom Dinner” follows in the tradition of “Bad Moms,” which took in more than $113 million at the U.S. box office. The directorial debut of Australian director Alethea Jones, “Fun Mom Dinner” has a great cast, and buyers will be attracted to the film’s strong combination of commerciality and relatability.

Sales contact: UTA/WME/ICM

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 to January 29.

Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.

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