Intriguing stats emerged when Geoff Gilmore and John Cooper unvelied the lineup for the 2008 Sundance Film Festival more than a month ago. Not only is the festival touting more than 50 first-time filmmakers for the upcoming festival, organizers are also saying that fewer than 20 of the 121 feature films set to screen have U.S. distribution. Based on data provided by the Sundance Film Festival's Industry Office and a number of sales companies who are heading to the event this week, about 100 new feature films are arriving at the festival with available U.S. rights. Coming off what was by all accounts a bad year for documentaries and low budget indies theatrically, not to mention the pressures created by the ongoing WGA strike, Sundance '08 has the potential to be a busy one for buyers at the festival. But, will the recent glut of fall films and the fact that most of last year's Sundance acquisitions didn't perform at the box office give buyers pause?
Getting an accurate assessment of the market potential ahead of a major festlval like Sundance can be a challenge. Sellers are almost always optimistic for fear of setting a negative tone with buyers. Meanwhile, distributors tend to grouse about the potential for a market, or complain that prices will be too high before adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Meanwhile, the filmmakers and producers -- those with arguably the most at stake -- are understandably anxious, asking insiders and journalists what buyers and sellers are really saying about the potential for the upcoming festival.
"I think the market will be good from a buyers perspective," Cinetic Media's John Sloss told indieWIRE, shortly after the Sundance lineup was announced, noting that his company is repping what he says are a number of commercial movies. Among the highest profile films for Cinetic and co-rep CAA (and arguably one of the highest profile films ever to debut at the festival) is Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened." The film boasts a cast that includes Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, John Turturro, Robin Wright Penn and Catherine Keener.
"We think it's a pretty strong linuep," CAA's Micah Green noted just after the roster was unveiled. "Qualitatively, it's probably on par with recent years, at the same time there are more distributors competing for quality titles that can be released theatrically and potentially cross over." He added, "There is always an appetitite for good independent movies."
"The fest could be very active with buyers considering the strike climate," David Dinerstein told indieWIRE late last week, representing Lakeshore, one of those newer buyers on the market. Buoyed by the success of Fox Searchlight's "Juno," he added that he's optimistic about the potential for entertaining specialty films.
"It is always so hard to tell before a festival," cautioned a veteran producer who has had numerous films sell at the festival. "But certainly with WGA and SAG strike, it feels like distributors may be relying more on acquisitions for 2008 releases," the producer told indieWIRE last week, "That feels like it is the case in our conversations with buyers. But I think you never quite know till you are there."
At Sundance one year ago, which logged tens of millions of dollars in sales in just the first few days of the festival, sellers beat back early talk anticipating a quiet market. However, unlike 2006 which launched "Little Miss Sunshine," a number of Sundance '07 titles were misfires. Many of the films ultimately acquired at last year's festival, from star-driven specialty fare to low-budget indies and documentaries, simply didn't fare so well in theatrical release. Among the films, acquired during the frenzy of the festival in Park City, that failed to meet expectations were: Magnolia Pictures' "Crazy Love" and "Great World of Sound," First Look and The Weinstein Company's "Dedication" as well as TWC's "Grace Is Gone," Fox Searchlight's "Joshua," Sony Pictures Classics' "My Kid Could Paint That," and ThinkFilm's "In The Shadow of the Moon."
The festival didn't produce a "Sunshine" hit, but Fox Searchlight was again the sole buyer to make the most of its acquisitions. If you believed buzz among buyers during last year's festival, the company was said to have overpaid when it bought the late Adriene Shelley's "Waitress," but that film made $19 million in theaters. And, as the festival came to a close, many insiders were saying that John Carney's "Once" was the fest's sleeper hit that might remain overlooked because it was just too Irish. Yet, after Sundance, Searchlight stepped in and made a deal, ultimately earning $9.4 million from the film in theaters.
With so many American narrative films coming into Sundance seeking U.S. distribution, buyers would seem to have a range of options available to them, everything from movies with big names attached to low-budget entries from indie prospects. Numerous sellers will be hoping to broker deals in Park City, with the majority of titles handled by just five key sales entities: Cinetic Media, CAA, Submarine, UTA, and William Morris.
Sundance veteran dealmakers Cinetic Media are boasting a nineteen film roster that includes: Nanette Burstein's "American Teen" (with CAA), Christopher Bell's "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," Sean Ellis' "The Broken," Chris Waitt's "A Complete History of My Sexual Failures," Bernard Shakey's "CSNY: Deja Vu," Terry Kinney's "Dimished Capacity," Amy Redford's "The Guitar," Patrick Creadon's "I.O.U.S.A.," Ricardo de Montreuil's "Mancora," Azazel Jacobs' "Momma's Man," Ellen Kuras & Thavisouk Phrasavath's "Nerakhoon" (The Betrayal), Margaret Brown's "The Order of Myths," Randall Cole's "Real Time," Trygve Allister Diesen & Lucky McKee's "Red"(with Submarine), Marina Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" (with Submarine), Christine Jeff's "Sunshine Cleaning," Brad Anderson's "Transsiberian," Carl Deal & Tia Lessin's "Trouble The Water," Barry Levinson's aforementioned "What Just Happened" (with CAA).
Meanwhile, CAA is selling some 15 films. The roster includes Nanette Burstein's "American Teen" (with Cinetic), Sacha Gervasi's "Anvil! The True Story of Anvil" (with Lichter Grossman), Austin Chick's "August," Randall Miller's "Bottle Shock," Steven Schachter's "The Deal," Boaz Yakin's "Death in Love," Sean McGinly's "The Great Buck Howard," Andrew Fleming's "Hamlet II," Susan Koch's "Kicking It" (with Submarine), Michael Keaton's "The Merry Gentlemen" (with Lichter Grossman), Rawson Marshall Thurber's "Mysteries of Pittsburgh," Katrina Browne's "Traces of the Trade," Jonathan Levine's "The Wackness," and Levinson's "What Just Happened" (with Cinetic). And at Slamdance, the agency has the feature, "Paranormal Activity."
Lead by Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson, Willam Morris Independent has Ari Gold's "Adventures of Power," Lance Hammer's "Ballast," Rupert Wyatt's "The Escapist," Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River," Marianna Palka's "Good Dick," Geoff Haley's "The Last Word," Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's "Sugar," and Patrick Sisam's "The Year of Getting To Know Us." While at Slamdance, WMI is handling the feature, "Fix." Meanwhile, Richard Klubeck from United Talent Agency noted that his agency is repping a number of films at the festival, including Daniel Barnz's "Phoebe in Wonderland," Alex Rivera's "Sleep Dealer," Neil Abramson's "American Son," Sharon Maguire's "Incendiary," and Clark Gregg's "Choke."
Josh Braun and Harry Geller from Submarine Entertainment are boasting a large roster, selling Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass's "Baghead," Chusy Haney-Jardine's "Anywhere, USA," Irena Salina's "Flow," Marina Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" (with Cinetic), Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee's "Red" (with Cinetic), James Marsh's "Man on Wire," Susan Koch's "Kicking It" (with CAA), Peter Galison and Rob Moss's "Secrecy" (with Peter Broderick), Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's "The Black List" (with Arthouse Films), and at Slamdance, Jeffrey Schwarz's "Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story." Among those working with Submarine is former CAA agent Kevin Iwashina.
Whether the no-budget, no-star projects are viable theatrically remains a key question among many independents today, especially after a fall in which even high-profile specialty releases with names faced challenges and crowding at the box office.
"The media perception of 'I got into Sundance and my life is validated', is wrong," cautioned Sony Pictures Classics Tom Bernard, a vocal critic of the commercialization of Sundance and its hyped market place. "Very few movies have that happen," Bernard noted, debunking the myth of the overnight success story.
"The odds are against you," warned a group of producers reps that includes Cinetic's Sloss, UTA's Klubeck, WMI's Ronson and Submarine's Braun, when asked back in October about the prognosis for narrative features made today without name talent attached. At a Film Independent forum in Los Angeles back in October, sellers were asked about the market potential today for independent films without stars. The sellers singled out recent Sundance films such as Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson" (which starred Ryan Gosling), John Carney's "Once" and Adrienne Shelley's "Waitress" (with Keri Russell) as underdog success stories, even though two of their examples included name actors.
"[The lineup is] a typical Sundance group - mixture of "high-profile" indies (by virtue of big stars) and small dramas by unknown directors, and docs on heavy subjects," noted Roadside Attractions' Howard Cohen, shortly after the Sundance '08 lineup was unveiled. "The combination of the strike and the increased number of distribs will mean that the films deemed by the 'acquisitions cabal' to be commercial will go for big big bucks." But, he noted, "That may only be two or three films, though."
"There will be a bunch of sales less than a million, and most films will go begging," Cohen prognosticated, "Again not dissimilar from other years."
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.