In a Sundance year that saw buyers zeroing in on a small handful of titles like "Hamlet 2," "American Teen," and "Choke," each going to a different Indiewood company, Sony Pictures Classics' slow-and-steady approach yielded a bounty of three notable acquisitions late in the festival. "Frozen River," which went onto win the Grand Jury Prize, and "Baghead," the Duplass brother's comedy, were bought for a song by comparison (low-to-mid six figure sums each), while the Sundance audience award winner "The Wackness," an early '90s-set hip-hop coming-of-age dramedy from the director of "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane," was purchased for upwards of seven figures. The news has had insiders, observers (and bloggers) buzzing.
Lead by co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, along with exec v.p. Dylan Leiner, Sony Classics was an aggressive player in Park City this year. The company was also in the final bidding for "American Teen" (Variety even misreported that they purchased the film), but Paramount Vantage eventually got the film for a deal pegged somewhere between $1 - 2 million. "We pulled our offer out; we just said enough is enough," Bernard said today, reaffirming what is often the company's modus operandi. As Bernard explained, "We're not looking for home runs; we're looking for singles and doubles."
Unlike mini-majors Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and Vantage, Sony Classics positions itself as a minor leaguer among giants--"the indie record label within the giant conglomerate," noted Bernard.
The tortoise-rather-than-the-hare strategy helped the company capture movies that were under the radar of buyers, and as Bernard argued, even sellers. "Sundance has gotten to the point where all the big sellers just want to sell their top three movies," Bernard offered today. "So a lot of the smaller movies lose their focus and don't get noticed. If you're a savvy buyer, you can look at pictures and wait until the end of the festival, and if they don't have a lot of action, you can get a movie for a reasonable price."
Long-standing veterans of the biz, the Sony team is considered passionate about the films they pursue. Filmmakers respond to their emotional investment, according to insiders, which can help the company get an edge over their larger, more bureaucratic rivals.
Jay Duplass, co-director of "Baghead," concurred today. "The peeps at Sony were the most enthusiastic about 'Baghead.' Their passion and creativity when talking about the film was like our own, and they had the most inspired ideas about bringing it to the rest of the world."
While Sony Classics has a long history of releasing an eclectic slate of movies, from "In the Company of Men" to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "SLC Punk!" to "All About My Mother," news of the company's purchase of the youth-oriented "Wackness" caused a stir among the film's more passionate online fans in recent days.
For example, FirstShowing.net's Alex Billington enthused about "The Wackness" getting acquired, but then went onto write, "The bad news is that Sony Pictures Classics isn't the greatest movie studio to sell to." Echoing other opinionated bloggers on the web, including those at ComingSoon.net, Slashfilm and Film School Rejects (which seems to have pulled its critical blog post), Billington added, "Sony Pictures Classics really needs to learn from Fox Searchlight if they're going to market 'The Wackness' and 'Baghead' correctly." Yesterday, even the Movie Marketing Madness blog weighed in on the initial buzz and the continuing backlash.
"Wackness" director Jonathan Levine said today the Sony-dissing bloggers are off-base. "We were burned on the distribution front once before," the filmmaker noted, referencing the fact that The Weinstein Company purchased and then failed to release "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane." "So our number one priority was getting a home for a film and getting a home that knew the commercial value," he said. "Tom and Michael were incredible. They got the movie more than anyone I spoke to. Sundance is an environment where genuine appreciation stands out more, and that's what I got from them. They're filmmaker-friendly and they do right by movies."
Still, Submarine's Josh Braun, who negotiated the "Baghead" deal, admitted today that going into Sundance this year he did not consider Sony Pictures Classics as the film's foremost buyer. "I think the film has a younger audience than they traditionally target," he said. "In going after 'Baghead' and 'Wackness,' it seems they're trying to find titles with broader and younger appeal."
But Bernard argued today against such characterizations. He explained that the acquisitions don't depart from the company's standard practice of buying a variety of movies.
"This journalistic crew is so young that they don't have a history of Sony Classics and Michael and I," said Bernard, referring to the bloggers who've been commenting on his company. "If you want to look at cutting-edge movies throughout our career, go back to movies like 'Diva,' 'Slacker,' 'Dogtown and Z-Boys,' 'Riding Giants,' 'SLC Punk,' 'Run Lola Run.'" (After our initial conversation, Bernard called back a second time with more titles, including "The Devil and the Daniel Johnston," "The Opposite of Sex," "Grateful Dawg," and "Kung Fu Hustle.")
However, a movie like "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" made less than $400,000 theatrically in 2006, while last year, the company released "American Hardcore," a punk-rock documentary, which made only $280,000. But, Bernard maintained today that all of these films have been successful. "It's a fractured reception among bloggers that every movie has to be 'Juno,'" added Bernard.
"If you want to evaluate a movie, evaluate the deal," Bernard argued. "That's what tells you. It's the difference of how much you take vs. how much you spend."
"Theatrical is certainly the beginning," he continued. "But we brand these movies so they have an incredibly long life." He claimed "SLC Punk!," which made $300,000 in U.S. theaters in 1999, continues to be one of the top five hits on the company's website.
But long-time profitability isn't good enough for some of the "Wackness" acolytes, who have unrealistic expectations for the film. FirstShowing.net's Billington posted a comment on the Movie Marketing blog, stating, "We want 'Wackness' to be a big hit, and big means anywhere from box office earnings of $50 - $100 million+."
Director Levine suggested if they want the movie to make that much money, they should all go see it numerous times.
Sony Pictures Classics, which is currently distributing "Persepolis" and will open "The Band's Visit" next week, plans to release both "The Wackness" and "Baghead" in the late summer, while "Frozen River" is being targeted as a 4th quarter possible Oscar push.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.