"Margin Call" proved to be one of the biggest success stories of Sundance 2011, showcasing the power of both VOD and of sharp marketing.
By now, everyone knows that while Sundance 2011 had a record year in terms of acquisitions, the proceeding box office did not follow suit.
That said, ragging on Sundance sales prospects is as old as the festival itself. This year, as with every other, there's no doubt that films will sell; the only thing that changes are what guides buyers toward their purchases.
So here's Indiewire's Top Five Guidelines For Successful Film Buying at Sundance 2012. All are subject, if not guaranteed, to change.
A cast is good; a character is better.
As Indiewire detailed last month
, the success of "Buck" had as much to do with the marketing of its subject as its subject matter. Horse-whispering cowboy Buck Brannaman is an honest-to-god unique character who easily translated the documentary's concept to millions via in-theater and festival appearances as well as rapturous Today Show slots
(where he was described as a "chick, horse, everything magnet").
By contrast, "Margin Call" was aided by good post-Sundance reviews as well as a strong cast (especially in terms of its VOD life). However, its biggest marketing asset may have been Occupy Wall Street. Those three words created a characterization that translated the economic concerns of millions -- and Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate positioned "Margin Call," with its torn-from-the-headlines plot, to be the beneficiary.
Good -- even great -- reviews are not enough.
A top indie distributor told me he used to believe that a film with across-the-board critical praise was good for at least $1 million at the box office. Today, it's clear that even for specialty films, there's not necessarily a causal connect between great reviews and great box office. Both "Project Nim" and "Like Crazy" were blessed with rapturous reviews; both failed to gross a quarter of their reported acquisition costs.
VOD is a player.
Of course, the delivery method is nothing new, but video on demand has a new lease on life for 2012. Despite the 2010 success of VOD titles like Magnolia Pictures' "All Good Things" starring Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Gosling, VOD at Sundance 2011 was still viewed as something of an anomaly. Now, with the on-demand successes of titles like "Melancholia" and "Margin Call" -- not to mention the aggressive acquisition strategies of IFC Films and Sundance Selects -- it's clear that while no one seems to have a clear grasp on the numbers, VOD is not to be ignored.
If you want to watch the action, be prepared to stay up late.
Park City at Midnight has long been a hotspot for acquisitions ranging from "The Blair Witch Project" and "Saw" to "Open Water" and "Buried." In the current climate, however, indie genre movies appear to be not only noteworthy but perhaps even a safer bet than their "mainstream" counterparts. Last year, all nine of the section's films found distribution (albeit with no breakout hits). This year there's seven titles and early buzz is good for "The Pact," "Black Rock," "Excision" and "SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS."
Our prediction: A few films will go big, more will go modest and many more will go begging.
As Tom Brueggemann detailed for Thompson on Hollywood
, the few hits that emerged from the festival contrast with a number of expensive disappointments. And now that VOD is proving to be a viable and profitable form of distribution, we're expecting it to play a bigger role in dealmaking. As one sales agent said, "Making VOD deals is exactly the same, only without the minimum guarantee." Oy.