First-Time Feature Filmmakers Find Fame: Sundance '04 Deals Include "Maria," "Woodsman," "Pink," "Garden State," "Napoleon," "Giants"; Also, Slamdance Wraps Up
by Eugene Hernandez and Jonny Leahan
Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film," the book many have been talking about on the party circuit here in Park City this year, details numerous acquisitions battles. Some fights over films are outrageous, like Harvey Weinstein's infamous 1996 altercation at Mercato restaurant off Main St., while other less abusive battles add to the lore of Park City dealmaking. This year's Sundance Film Festival saw its share of competitiveness and a slew of million-dollar acquisitions deals, almost all of which surrounded films by first-time feature filmmakers.
Last weekend, as buyers battled for the rights to festival films, execs from one company showed up at the door of the Deer Valley condo of a leading sales company, announcing that they weren't leaving without the rights to a hot title. The distribution company prevailed, nabbing the movie and ultimately creating some animosity with other buyers who felt that they didn't get a fair crack at the film.
Fox Searchlight played a key role in the frenzy of festival buying this year, teaming up with Miramax on a reported $5 million deal for Zach Braff's "Garden State" and paying a nearly equal amount on its own for Jared Hess' "Napolean Dynamite." Both films mark the debut of new directors whose next projects will no doubt be hot properties. Braff is a TV actor who stepped behind the camera for the first time on a feature, while Hess is an Idaho filmmaker, now living in Salt Lake City, who is pursuing a TV series based on his film.
Another acclaimed first feature effort is Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace." HBO Films and Fine Line confirmed this week that they will release the movie theatrically through their unique corporate synergy partnership that has also handled the releases of "American Splendor" and "Elephant."
Newmarket may yet prove to be a big buyer this year. On Thursday, the company nabbed the popular dramatic competition entry "The Woodsman" by first-timer Nicole Kassell, in a deal that reportedly topped $1 million. Late yesterday the company was competing against such buyers as Samuel Goldwyn Films for the rights to freshman Morgan Spurlock's popular competition doc, "Super Size Me." A pact for that picture was considered likely at press time late Friday, although a source close to the movie cautioned that even in advanced bidding, deals can fall apart.
Another first-time film that had buyers buzzing was Kevin Wilmott's "CSA: The Confederate States of America." Perhaps energized by Spike Lee's decision to come on board as the executive producer of the movie once it was accepted to screen at Sundance, IFC Films nabbed distribution rights to the movie.
Sony Pictures Classics was a busy buyer this year, making a deal for the opening night film "Riding Giants." Sony also jumped on the comedic culture clash Sundance premiere "Touch of Pink," nabbing the movie shortly after its debut. Outside of the festival, the company announced deals for Chris Terrio's "Heights" and the Czech Oscar foreign-language submission "Zelary."
Focus Features announced its deal for Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries" the day after the movie's world premiere at the Eccles, where it debuted to immediate critical and audience acclaim. First Look also nabbed a film, securing worldwide rights to Christian Johnston's "September Tapes." [Eugene Hernandez]
SLAMDANCE '04 WRAPS UP
The 10th Annual Slamdance Film Festival was set to wrap Friday night with the awards presentation at the Snow Park Lodge in Deer Valley and the highly anticipated Slamdance 10th Birthday Party Celebration followed the closing night awards ceremony. The blowout bash featured celebrity DJs D:Fuse, Money Mark, DJ Me DJ You, and DJ Knucklz. Earlier in the evening, the festival planned a screening of political satire "Death & Texas" as the closing night film, written and directed by Kevin DiNovis ("Surrender Dorothy"), and starring Charles Durning and Steve Harris with Jello Biafra, Andy Richter and Billy Ray Cyrus. Made for $200,000, the anti-death penalty film tells the story of pro-football player Barefoot Bobby Briggs (Harris) and his attempts to avoid lethal injection based on his involvement in a botched armed robbery.
On Wednesday night, Slamdance hosted the world premiere of "Hair High," produced, animated and directed by comic guru Bill Plympton. Billed as "an outrageous Gothic high school comedy", the animated feature is one of his best and funniest works yet. It tells the story of Cherri and Spud, a teenage couple who are murdered on their prom night, only to return as skeletons a year later to claim their crowns. In an animation first, Plympton drew the entire film live on his website at www.hairhigh.com.
Overall, the festival appeared to be a well-attended success, and the marking of the decade milestone is a thrill to its founders. "Slamdance has not only endured, it has prospered and done so on its own terms," said Peter Baxter, president and co-founder of the festival. "Where we really are coming from, as always, is to try and support the emerging filmmaker along their way." [Jonny Leahan]
A collective of publicists in Park City promoting pictures to the press have voted for their favorite journalists covering the festival this year. Names in the category of best print coverage is Tom Roston of Premiere Magazine, for best TV coverage, Alejandro Rojas and crew from HBO Latin America, best radio coverage went to David D'arcy from NPR, best photo coverage was awarded to Carlo Allegri from Getty Images and finally, we're humbled to announce that indieWIRE was honored for its online coverage. Voting members included IHOP, MRC, FALCO, Jeremy Walker & Associates, INDIE PR and mPRm.
The collective also announced that they will hold their first "Swagdance" today. The PR outfits will give away promotional items from the Sundance films at 4 p.m. this afternoon in the atrium of the Marriott.