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Sunday at Sundance: A Quickening Pace, Deals Imminent, Docs Strong

Photo of Jay A. Fernandez By Jay A. Fernandez | Indiewire January 20, 2013 at 7:27PM

By mid-afternoon Sunday, day four of the Sundance Film Festival, the acquisitions landscape remained fairly quiet. On the outside.
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"We Are What We Are."
"We Are What We Are."

By mid-afternoon Sunday, day four of the Sundance Film Festival, the acquisitions landscape remained fairly quiet. On the outside.

But behind the closed doors of Park City, acquisitions execs were aggressively jockeying for position as more of the high-level premieres were unveiled, even as no one had yet pulled the trigger on anything from the dramatic side of the program. It's unlikely that Monday morning will arrive without some action.

The slow-burn pace follows a recent pattern at the festival of buyers sizing up as much of the film roster as they can the first few days until one party closes a deal and the rest of the dominoes fall as each distributor then lunges for its next-best target. And with the wide array of both good-enough films and effective distributors, it no longer feels as if competition must be targeted and heavy on just a tight handful of movies -- it can be spread across the program.

“Given the reactions, the films will find homes, for sure,” says Bob Berney, who with wife Jeanne recently re-launched Picturehouse. “But I don’t see a mad scramble yet.”

“Kill Your Darlings” and “Don Jon’s Addiction,” two films with sizable stars and high-profile premieres at the Eccles Theatre, unspooled Friday, and while both are sure to find homes, neither is an easy sell for audiences. Both have received praise for performances, but the sexiness on display in each comes with a major dash of dark.

Through Saturday, Lynn Shelton’s “Touchy Feely,” Drake Doremus’s “Breathe In” and Michael Winterbottom’s “The Look of Love” – anticipated works from returning Sundance filmmakers — screened mostly to piecemeal praise that pointed, again, to worthy films that would certainly find audiences but hadn’t hit with the consensus power that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “Precious” did in recent years.

One source pegs Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Addiction” for a wide-release play by one of the newer distributors. Likely VOD-friendly titles such as “Austenland” and “Two Mothers” — both Friday premieres — have bids on them as well, according to a source that has been meeting with sellers. A different source pegs Park City at Midnight selections "S-VHS" and "We Are What We Are" for imminent placement.

"The Summit"
"The Summit"

Potential buyers and programmers alike suggested that this would be the case in the weeks before the festival — that as strong as this year’s program is, it was unlikely to provoke any mad swooning (it’s never too late for that, of course, and “Before Midnight” doesn’t screen until Sunday night). David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” could up-end things. It had its premiere Sunday afternoon, and as effusive as fans of the film have been, it still skews to the small, arty wing of box office potential. Even so, it has stars and a filmmaker with real buzz attached, so it could be one of the first narrative deals to close.

Several documentaries have already found homes, however, with Sundance Selects picking up North American rights to “The Summit” and “Dirty Wars,” Showtime grabbing “History of the Eagles” and RADiUS-TWC acquiring “Twenty Feet From Stardom” Friday. In recent years, the increasingly meaty nonfiction portion of the program has produced as much excitement (and box office return) as the fiction side. And with the dramatic films requiring a more cautious approach, the first days of the festival have become increasingly dominated by doc purchases.

“It’s like going into a candy store,” says Sundance Selects/IFC Films acquisitions chief Arianna Bocco, who has done well with docs “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” “Buck” and other Sundance pick-ups in recent years, and has 2012 buy “How to Survive a Plague” up for an Oscar this year. “There’s always a clear audience for documentaries in taking them out to the marketplace. With docs, there’s a path.”

It helps that a number of the best-performing films acquired out of the 2012 Sundance line-up were documentaries: “Searching for Sugar Man,” “The Imposter,” “The Queen of Versailles,” “Chasing Ice” and “Shut Up and Play the Hits” all did well at the box office last year.

“Sundance has always had a strong doc program, and now with all the digital distribution channels there has been a lot of action there for buyers and sellers,” says Berney. “It’s brought good life to documentaries, which has always been a dream of Redford’s.”

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary