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by Eugene Hernandez
January 20, 2006 12:58 AM
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PARK CITY '06 BIZ DAILY: Managing (Biz) Expectations as Sundance '06 Begins

With the Sundance Film Festival opening tonight, 'expectations' were the buzz amongst buyers and sellers checking in at the Park City Marriott this morning. An informal survey indicated that industry are taking a wait-and-see approach, trying to keep hype in check and not letting those expectations get too high. "I am not sure what to expect this year in terms of acquisitions," the head buyer at one New York company explained this morning, "but as a festival it looks like a really interesting lineup."

The annual Sundance festival has clearly evolved over the years, with a key element now considered its essential market side -- the leading showcase of new films (for the industry) in this country. A large mass of buyers and an equally significant group of sellers are in Park City to engage in the annual ritual of dealmaking.

Given the many changes on the specialty and independent film landscape over the past year, observers and insiders are anxious to see how this year's Sundance lineup is received in the marketplace, especially among Indiewood units. A new regime is in place at Paramount Classics, Bob & Harvey are now at The Weinstein Company, Bob Berney is heading the new Picturehouse from New Line and HBO, and Miramax is under new leadership.

"My gut tells me that there won't be the bidding wars there have been at recent markets for pics like "Hustle and Flow," "Trust the Man", and "Thank You For Smoking," explained Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg in an email interview with indieWIRE this week, citing three of the bigger film acquisitions of the past year. "Hustle" made major waves at Sundance last year when Paramount Classics made one of the biggest acquisition deals in the history of the festival. The company was also in the mix on "Thank You for Smoking" in Toronto, but a late-night drama resulted in Fox Searchlight scoring a last- second deal for the movie. And days later in Toronto the company nabbed Bart Freundlich's "Trust the Man."

If indeed there are fewer high-dollar bidding wars, it may be the result of a lineup that, to many in the industry, seems less overtly commercial. "I expect to see a lot of worthy films that will be tough sells," noted ThinkFilm head of theatrical distribution Mark Urman in an email interview with indieWIRE this week, adding that he still anticipates deals will go down. "I also expect that the few 'commercial' films will create huge bidding wars just like in the bad- old, good-old days."

Among a lot of Sundance veterans, there's been talk that this year's lineup up is a bit of a throwback to those old days. Many feel that it's the sort of roster of films that might have been seen in Park City perhaps ten years ago. One Sundance insider smiled at the thought today, saying, "I hope that this year will be seen as the beginning of a new wave."

"[This year] seems to be a real return to roots, or at least the '90s," explained Urman, "Meaning that the selections in most categories seem to be more about quality, ideas, or themes and less about glitz or overt commercial concerns."

At a press conference today though, Robert Redford reiterated that despite the greater attention from the industry (and countless marketers in town to hype their brands), the festival remains unchanged. And again he encouraged a "don't believe the hype stance" among attendees, asking that they avoid getting sucked into only the films that are deemed to have industry buzz going into the festival.

Setting the stage for the next 10 days -- at today's press conference -- Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore restated many of the lines that have been uttered about this year's lineup among attendees: "It goes back to its roots...is as independent as we have (seen) in a number of years...it bodes really really well for independent cinema." But in response he explained, "It's really hard to talk about the festival when you guys haven't seen the films yet, but you be the judge of that when you look at the work."

"We program this as a festival, we don't program for commerciality, we program for diversity," said Redford in his remarks Thursday. Summing it up simply, he concluded, "We provide, you decide, that's how we see it."

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