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by Dana Harris
January 29, 2012 1:19 PM
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Sundance 2012 in the Rearview: What the Hell Just Happened?

Ben Lewin's "The Surrogate" Fox Searchlight
Sundance 2012 is behind us and while it might have fallen a little short of the dealmaking windfall that defined Sundance 2011, this is a year that we won't soon forget. Here's why.

Fox Searchlight is the biggest winner of Sundance 2012. Or not.
Fox Searchlight acquired what are arguably the two most important films of the festival: "The Surrogate" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild," both of which won impressively at last night's awards ceremony (Grand Jury and cinematography for "Beasts," Audience Award and special jury for ensemble performance for "Surrogate").

But now that Searchlight has the movies, what will it do with them?

"The Surrogate" stars three actors who all do great work but are far from household names. (Yes, Helen Hunt won an Oscar, but that was nearly 15 years ago; before this year's "Soul Surfer," her last roles were the little-seen "Every Day" and "Then She Found Me," which Hunt also directed.)

The subject matter is tough: sexual surrogacy (which, in an unofficial bit of market research, it seems there's a number of well-educated people who had never heard of the practice and when they did, their first response was much like the film's priest, William H. Macy: "Isn't that the same thing as prostitution?") and the sex lives of the handicapped, which is a topic that, as Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) points out, many folks would rather not think about at all.

And then there's the Oscar factor, which introduces an interesting conundrum: Oscar likes movies about the handicapped overcoming obstacles. Oscar does not like movies about sex. And while it's very possible that Academy could focus on Hawkes' performance, in which he does not go full monty, it's impossible to ignore that Hunt does. In fact, the way the film uses her frequent and full-on nudity to address the matter-of-fact nature of her work is one of the film's real strengths.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is another challenge, although a very different one. Reviews are rapturous, describing it as "ethereal," "surreal," "poetic," "lyrical" and, per THR's Todd McCarthy, "One of the most striking films ever to debut at the Sundance Film Festival." Successfully bringing that to a wider audience, however, is another matter. Magical realism is traditionally a tough sell and this is one where the film's logline will need some translation.

Harvey Weinstein: The Man Who Wasn't There.
He was certainly in Park City -- he and his team, including Bob Weinstein and international head David Glasser huddled in the Eccles lobby after the premiere of "Bachelorette" -- but neither Weinstein Co. nor his new VOD label, RADiUS, announced a single buy at the festival.

There's a lot that's still on the table...
Expect to see a lot of post-Sundance dealmaking. Among the many likely candidates are Stephen Frears' "Lay the Favorite," Kirsten Dunst-starrer "Bachelorette," Mark Duplass-starrer "Safety Not Guaranteed" (which had Fox Searchlight PR asking journalists for their reactions the day after it premiered), New Frontiers' "Room 237" (presuming the rights issues could be worked out with Warner Bros. re: "The Shining"), Sheldon Candis' debut "LUV" and Documentary Audience Award winner "The Invisible War."

…But how theatrical will those deals be?
VOD is still largely uncharted territory. Straight to VOD is gaining a reputation as the 21st-century version of straight to DVD, but that's not always the case. Consumer behavior around VOD is still a work in progress and there's many possible variables including day-and-date VOD (in which the film bows in theaters at the same time) and "ultra VOD," in which the film gets a VOD rampup at premium rates before its theatrical launch. It's likely that even the distributors don't necessarily know which deal will work for each film, which is one reason these deals may take a while to close.

Bingham Ray.
Finally, Sundance 2012 will always be remembered as the one where we lost Bingham. It's been less than a week since he passed and there already have been many, many heartfelt eulogies (including the wonderful one provided by Ray's poker buddies and read by John Cooper at last night's awards ceremony). And of the many reasons why his absence will remain palpable, one of the biggest is it's hard to find anyone as much fun as he was when it came to hashing out What Sundance Meant every year.

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6 Comments

  • bob hawk | January 30, 2012 12:01 AMReply

    The two most sublime experiences I had at Sundance this year were BEASTS and SURROGATE. (I caught the latter at the very last screening of the festival tonight at a virtually full Eccles. The audience embraced it with both silent attentiveness and full-bodied, empathetic laughter.) This film is so accessible and easy to relate to. I think that great word of mouth will help Fox Searchlight a lot. BEASTS will be a bit more challenging in positioning (magical realism IS a tough one) -- but if Fox's campaign can get them into the theater I think word of mouth will again be helpful. I certainly agree with Todd McCarthy that this is one of the most striking films ever to play Sundance -- and, for me, a memorable experience in a life of moviegoing.

  • jingmei | January 29, 2012 9:16 PMReply

    Wish could watch the awesome films sooner by publicly releasing. Sounds like Magnolia the indie company is a big dealer this time, that's cool.

  • Bonfire | January 29, 2012 4:23 PMReply

    Minutes after this post, Deadline broke that TWC picked up "Lay the Favorite".

  • Dana Harris | January 29, 2012 7:01 PM

    Yep, saw that -- but was away from the computer. I have to believe that if TWC could have negotiated that deal any sooner, they would have; a lot more fun to announce things when you have an audience. In any case, we'll continue to update the post-Sundance pickups in the weeks ahead.

  • Dan | January 29, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    No love for "Smashed"?

  • Emily | January 30, 2012 10:55 AM

    I was hoping for Smashed to get picked up. Fingers crossed that it has a post-Sundance deal because it sounds like it has fantastic potential. I have a feeling it'll get a deal seeing how Octavia Spencer's in it.