Way back in October, sellers began speculating that with the looming Writer's Guild strike, this year's Sundance Film Festival would see booming business. For months, buyers, sellers, and journalists set the stage: narrative films would catch fire as the strike continued and docs would face tough times in the wake of a bad year at the box office. At Sundance Film Festival industry parties on Monday, a number of buyers and sellers alike seemed genuinely surprised that Sundance '08 hasn't followed the approved script and a narrower roster of narrative films than expected were in play by the festival's midpoint. But, late Monday, many seemed confident that deals would start to happen and sure enough today, three new narrative features that screened for the first time on Monday were quickly snapped up in a day that saw about $18 million in deals.
Earlier today, the first major narrative acquisitions of the festival emerged with the immediate news of Focus Features deal for Andrew Fleming's "Hamlet 2," a late addition to the Sundance lineup that was picked up just hours after its world premiere in a $10 million deal brokered by CAA. It is the biggest acquisition to hit Sundance since "Little Miss Sunshine" was acquired by Fox Searchlight two years ago on the first Saturday of the festival.
Overture Films subsequently announced a $3 million deal for Mark Pellington's "Henry Poole is Here" (acquiring the film from Lakeshore) and Searchlight made a deal with UTA to acquire Clark Gregg's "Choke."
The deals unveiled today trumped anticipated pacts for early fest debuts including Christine Jeffs' "Sunshine Cleaning" and Jonathan Levine's "The Whackness," both of which have been expected to sell out of Sundance but remain on the market. Meanwhile, many insiders are wondering what will happen with the high-profile "What Just Happened?" Audiences and sellers alike have been asking that question since the $20 million Barry Levinson film screened. Word spread quickly on the party circuit the night of the showing that the movie was a dud. Other films seen as sure-fire acquisitions coming into the festival, such as Brad Anderson's "Transssiberian" and Sean McGinly's "The Great Buck Howard," have yet to score distribution.
Some, however were starting to wonder had those three debuting films acquired today been scheduled to screen on the first or second day of the festival, would there be so much anxiety about the marketplace at Sundance this year?
"What we're seeing is major apprehension about the marketability of films and last night, studios saw three films that they love and saw as marketable," explained Rich Klubeck of United Talent Agency, who brokered the "Choke" deal with Fox Searchlight. "It has more to do with the general state of how challenging marketing films is. It is hard to get a film noticed in the marketplace. Because expectations were so high for this year, when many films didn't perform, people got really scared."
The slow burn of this year's Sundance market and the apparent initial rejection of certain high-profile star-driven movies by buyers raised an important warning to the sales community, noted a number of buyers surveyed in the past day by indieWIRE. Essentially ignored amidst all of the prognostication leading up to Sundance were the films themselves. Now, amidst a flurry of hand-wringing in the media, many Sundance Film Festival attendees are taking a step back. The clear message: Some films clearly weren't meeting buyer's quality standards, other were apparently priced too high, and many of the good films are simply considered too small and hard to market. All three answers illuminate the shifting state of the independent and specialty film business.
"There wasn't the film or films that caused enough of a passion to really go for it," noted Picturehouse president Bob Berney, who explained that for the second Sundance in a row, he has set the bar higher for the films he acquires for his company. "Its pretty high because its so expensive to market the films and its so competitive. You don't want to come back and have buyers remorse." But, he added that even though he is leaving the festival on Wednesday, Picturehouse may still make a play for a festival title.
"They are not selling because maybe the expectations are too high and people are saying, 'I'll wait' and that's just had an odd effect'," explained Submarine's Josh Braun, chatting with indieWIRE at the Picturehouse party on Monday afternoon. "I do think that in the end its all about responding to a great film."
"I think people are being cautious because the tables have turned in the sense that are a lot of choices out there," noted Arianna Bocco, head of acquisitions for IFC Films, chatting during Monday night's crowded Cinetic Media, "But, the movies have to meet the quality requirements."
"I also think that the movies will sell," Bocco added, "Just not this week." You have to be able to watch the movies and then take the time to see who is the right company...when I hear some of the prices that are being bandied about for 'American Teen', its the same thing." Reiterating, Bocco noted, "It never goes away, the altitude every year goes to people's heads."
Bocco spoke with indieWIRE near where Cinetic Media's John Sloss had been huddled in a meeting with A&E's Molly Thompson and filmmaker Nanette Burstein, upstairs at Zoom during the annual Cinetic party where most guests were drinking and dancing. As of this evening (Tuesday), the film still remained on the market with sellers saying a deal is still coming together. Sony Pictures Classics is seen as as front-runner to make a deal.
"If people felt that they could make money with the movie, there would be a frenzy, but the movies are pretty challenging i think," added Jonathan Sehring, the head of IFC Entertainment, standing alongside Bocco at the party. "A lot of the studios would rather not take a chance, than take a chance on a movie that they are not going to make money on."
"That doesn't mean that a lot of those films won't get [a deal]," added Berney, in the conversation with indieWIRE. "The market is going to fix the value."
INTERVIEW | Amy Redford, Director of "The Guitar"
"As a kid I witnessed the process of my Dad making films and the extraordinary cast of characters that came together to make it happen," explained "The Guitar" director Amy Redford to indieWIRE, in a recent interview. "I found myself drawn to the nomadic and creative life that that implied." Redford, at Sundance with her directorial debut, which follows Mel (Saffron Borrows), a unfortunate young woman who loses her job and boyfriend and finds out she has terminal cancer all on the same morning. "I have explored many different areas of the industry, including acting, and knew that I ultimately wanted to begin directing," Redford said. "What led me to actually having the opportunity to do it was a combination of luck, timing, and stubbornness."
INTERVIEW | Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, Directors of "The Linguists"
"All three of 'The Linguists' directors came upon filmmaking much as any unattractive male who came of age in the 1980s: 'Dungeons and Dragons'-inspired imagination, comic book-taught storytelling, Spike Lee-stirred urgency.," explained Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger in a third-person narrative to indieWIRE, in a recent interview. "The Linguists," featuring in the Spectrum program, follows two academics, David Harrison and Greg Anderson, as they travel to places around the world in search of "endangered languages." "The directors of 'The Linguists' set out to make a film for the masses on a complicated if not head-for-the-hills topic: documenting endangered languages," they said. "Finding the most engaging characters to lead the audience through the world of linguistics was the initial challenge."
INTERVIEW | Clark Gregg, Director of "Choke"
"My goals for Sundance are to find a great distributor for the film and to go sledding with my daughter," "Choke" director Clark Gregg told indieWIRE, in a recent interview. "Choke," screening in dramatic competition at Sundance, is adapted from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, and centers on Victor Mancini, a sex-addicted med-school dropout. "I was given the book 'Choke' by Chuck Pahalaniuk to consider for a writing assignment in late summer of 2001," said Gregg. "[I] was immediately taken with the unflinching way it dealt with the difficult topics of childhood trauma and sexual compulsion in a way that was both painful and hysterically funny."
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.