Fox Searchlight's North American rights deal for John Carney's "Once," considered the sleeper hit of this year's Sundance Film Festival, capped a wave of deals from the festival as buyers now prepare to make their way to Berlin this week for the increasingly important European Film Market. While some $50 million has already been spent for some 15 theatrical deals (see the complete list at the end of this story), insiders expect more Park City pacts to emerge. Buyers and sellers also continue to try and make sense of why the market was so robust this year given pre-fest trade reports that downplayed the upcoming festival and painted a relatively bleak picture. In The Hollywood Reporter an opening day Sundance piece said that the fest lacked "obvious crowd-pleasers" and "high-concept" projects, while an unnamed buyer told Variety that the fest would, "probably be great for ThinkFilm, but I'll be surprised if Focus or Vantage or Searchlight buy anything."
The fest was certainly busy for ThinkFilm, which made two deals at the festival and is still eyeing a number of other films, but both Paramount Vantage and Fox Searchlight were particularly active. Each company spent as much as $10 million, with Vantage getting two movies and Searchlight making deals for four pictures.
What seems to have caught many buyers and sellers off guard is that perhaps more deals than ever were signed, even though the films were considered to be a bit tougher and more arthouse than in recent years at Sundance. And surprise at the number of deals and the prices paid has already led some to dismissively argue that the films won't perform in theaters and that there will be a backlash next year.
Carney's "Once," a crowd-pleaser that had fest audiences cheering on its way to the world dramatic competition audience prize, was deemed too Irish, too niche, or generally too small by numerous cynics who individually praised the film but expressed concern about its theatrical prospects. Not so for Fox Searchlight. "'Once' swept the entire Searchlight team off its feet," company COO Nancy Utley said in a statement, "From acquisitions to production to marketing, distribution and music, we passionately wanted to be part of 'Once'. The film is so beautiful and haunting, it's unforgettable."
Fox Searchlight maintained its status as a leading Park City buyer, amidst constant speculation about last year's "Little Miss Sunshine," which has put Searchlight in Oscar's best picture race. The company added George Ratliff's "Joshua" and the late Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress" to its slate and also made a joint pact for Patricia Riggen's "La Misma Luna" with The Weinstein Company. In recent years the company has also acquired hits "Napoleon Dynamite," and "Garden State" at the festival.
Calling this year's Sundance market "one of the most aggressive" he could ever remember and, "one of the biggest dealmaking Sundance's ever," Picturehouse president Bob Berney explained, "There is a lot of money in the marketplace, there are a lot of buyers with money, it's really a sellers market." And he added, "This was such a broad market, so many films were selling." He said he expects the dealmaking to continue for weeks.
"I thought these movies were challenging, difficult and dark," Bob Berney told indieWIRE, "And they were all selling." But he added, "I am not sure how these films will perform."
Asked to justify what he called "off the hook" buying and selling in Park City this year, Cinetic Media's John Sloss reflected on the infamous "Sundance curse" that plagued a number of high-profile festival acquisitions at the festival not so many years ago. Sloss, who sold "Sunshine" to Searchlight last year and brokered the "Misma Luna" deal along with the Weinstein Company pact for "Grace Is Gone" with William Morris this year, quipped that perhaps, "This is sort of the reverberation of 'Little Miss Sunshine' and 'The Illusionist' finally breaking the curse of super popular (Sundance) films finally working in the marketplace."
"This year' s festival exceeded my expectations, which accounts for why the market was among the most active in memory," ThinkFilm head of U.S. theatrical distribution Mark Urman told indieWIRE last week, "Say what you want about buyer habits, or the after effects of 'Little Miss Sunshine', the overall quality of films this year was better, and more films were 'buyable'. If the prices were higher, that's a function of supply and demand."
"(I) thought this year's market was eye-opening," explained Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen, "'Little Miss Sunshine' seems to have penetrated all the studios' consciousness. So there were many 'LMS' or 'Inconvenient Truth' hopefuls purchased. But I guess only one has to work and it will all happen again in '08."
The tough times are for the smaller, indie films, as Cohen added, "Small dramas and more challenging films get further marginalized every year; the mind-space/market space/theatre space for true indies is shrinking and I don't see it getting better. Netflix or similar venues will be the only home for 80% - 90% of indie films. On the other hand, in the past many, indie films never got any distribution so it's not so bad."
"I was surprised at some of the films that sold," Cinetic's John Sloss told indieWIRE, "surprised at the overall level of buying." As usual, he said his company will conclude most of its deals after the festival, adding that he specifically expects to sell Chris Smith's "The Pool," and Andrew Wagner's "Starting Out In The Evening," the final film from the now defunct InDigEnt digital production label. On the doc side of things, Sloss noted that less "rigorous" documentaries were the ones that sold first this year, however he still expects to find a home for his own "No End in Sight," about the Bush administration's failures in Iraq.
"Several more films will be bought in days and weeks to come. We intend to buy a few more, and are engaged in that as we speak," ThinkFilm's Mark Urman told indieWIRE, "Those left in the dust are probably either deeply flawed, or they have very limited theatrical potential, or they are overpriced, in which case they will sell eventually, once their financiers stop dreaming!"
Meanwhile, Roadside's Howard Cohen said that his company has its sights set on one or two films," while his partner Eric d'Arbeloff added, "If we can make a deal that makes sense."
As for Picturehouse, the company came in with Jeffrey Blitz's "Rocket Science" in the dramatic competition. Blitz won the Sundance directing prize, while Berney sent his money over at Slamdance, acquiring "King of Kong" at the alternative festival. As for other deals, Berney seemed to downplay his company's interest in additional fest films, but added that in a couple of cases he intends to take another look at movies that are now being re-worked post-festival.
"It's interesting to see the studios viewing the films somewhat differently," d'Arbeloff told indieWIRE, "If they see marketable elements they can push them more like they traditionally would one of their own productions." Concluding, he added, "I think the success of 'Little Miss Sunshine', 'Inconvenient Truth', 'March of the Penguins', and 'Super Size Me' is hard to ignore. Certainly not all the films acquired this year will work on that level, but that's just the nature of the business. But if some of these films really hit, the prices paid this year will seem like a bargain."
List of Sundance 2007 Deals, So Far:
"Clubland" - rights in multiple territories acquired by Warner Independent Pictures
"Crazy Love" - North American rights acquired by Magnolia Pictures
"Dedication" - worldwide acquired by First Look Pictures and The Weinstein Company
"Enemies of Happiness" - acquired by Women Make Movies
"Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman" -- U.S. TV rights acquired by Sundance Channel
"Grace is Gone" - worldwide rights acquired by The Weinstein Company
"How She Move" - worldwide rights (excluding Canada) acquired by Paramount Vantage and MTV Films
"In The Shadow of the Moon" - North American rights acquired by ThinkFilm
"Joshua" - worldwide rights acquired by Fox Searchlight
"King of California" - acquired by First Look Pictures
"La Misma Luna" - worldwide rights acquired by Fox Searchlight and The Weinstein Company
"My Kid Could Paint That" - acquired by Sony Pictures Classics
"Nanking" - international rights (except China) acquired by Fortissimo Films
"Once" - North American rights acquired by Fox Searchlight
"The Signal" - English-language rights acquired by Magnolia Pictures
"Son of Rambow" - worldwide rights (excluding Japan, Germany, and French Free TV) acquired by Paramount Vantage
"The Ten" - acquired by ThinkFilm and City Lights
"Teeth" - apparently acquired by Lions Gate and The Weinstein Commpany (not officially confirmed)
"The Unforseen" - U.S. TV rights acquired by Sundance Channel
"Waitress" - worldwide rights acquired by Fox Searchlight