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Why 38 Films Sold at Sundance, Many of Them Dark

Indiewire By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire February 2, 2011 at 8:36AM

An attractive young woman escapes from an oppressive cult and suffers from the lingering trauma; another woman kills a pregnant lady and her young child in a car accident and then tries to make amends with the aggrieved husband.
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Fox Searchlight's "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

An attractive young woman escapes from an oppressive cult and suffers from the lingering trauma; another woman kills a pregnant lady and her young child in a car accident and then tries to make amends with the aggrieved husband.

We're a long way from "Little Miss Sunshine."

While Sundance 2011 has made headlines for its dizzying rush of distributor acquisitions with nearly 40 completed sales, two stand out: Fox Searchlight's purchases of Sean Durkin's cult drama "Martha Marcy Mary Marlene" and Mike Cahill's scifi-tinged melodrama "Another Earth."

Searchlight, the indie powerhouse known for high-profile Sundance acquisitions such as "Napoleon Dynamite," "Garden State" and "(500) Days of Summer," went out and picked two of the darkest, headiest, auteur-driven competition films at this year's festival. What happened to a jittery, risk-averse movie marketplace guided by safe genre bets and star-driven comedies?

Two possibilities: "Black Swan" and "Winter's Bone." Surely, those two films were on the lips of many industry insiders trudging through the snow in Park City — the former a Searchlight production that's grossed $90 million and five Oscar nominations, and the latter Roadside Attraction's Sundance award-winner that went on to become a gritty breakout and an Oscar contender.

But Searchlight's two arthouse acquisitions even shocked their backers. "It was definitely a surprise," says "Another Earth" producer Hunter Gray. "But it's a good one. We weren't expecting someone like Fox Searchlight."

"We would have been thrilled with a $75,000 deal from Magnolia," says Preferred Content's Kevin Iwashina, who helped broker the low-seven-figure sale of "Another Earth" with William Morris Endeavor. "But the fact that it was Fox was a grand slam and exceeded everyone's expectations."

"Martha Marcy Mary Marleen" executive producer Ted Hope says he was "super skeptical" that Searchlight was on the lookout to acquire the next "Winter's Bone," as was the rumor going into this year's festival. "I didn't think there was much of a chance," he says.

Instead, these titles met a perfect storm of circumstances: the company's continuing desire to promote challenging films, a growing momentum in the industry at large and some sweet circumstances surrounding those films' Sundance premieres.

Iwashina felt Searchlight was in an acquiring mood from the start. "They were very open and aggressive," he says. "Most buyers want to say 'no' quicker than 'yes,' but they had an attitude that was like, 'We want to say 'yes.'"

Though Searchlight may be most known for crowd-pleasing hits such as "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine," the company hasn't shied away from challenging, filmmaker-driven material. For example, while "127 Hours" is Danny Boyle's followup to Oscar juggernaut "Slumdog Millionaire," the film's gruesome premise was not an easy sell. The same goes for films they invested in, such as last year's awards contender "Crazy Heart" or Mark Romanek's dour sci-fi adaptation "Never Let Me Go." And two years ago, they paid a reported $5 million at Sundance for an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's "Choke," which is certainly no one's idea of light entertainment.

Then again, good timing helped foment the sales. Iwashina says there was real momentum on "Another Earth" because the press and industry screening immediately followed the film's rousing Monday afternoon public premiere. "Sometimes, you just capture lightning in a bottle," he says.

Ted Hope also credited "Martha's" early screening slot -- the first Friday of the festival -- as surprisingly helpful. "Historically, when we've had our films play really well and go onto a sale, they've played towards the end of the festival, where the filmmaker's ambition can trump the commercial aspects of other people's works," he says. But this year, many of the high-profile actor vehicles played late in the festival, allowing "Martha" to stand out early, both in terms of positive word of mouth and critical support.

Both "Martha" and "Another Earth" are also anchored by magazine-ready female newcomers Elizabeth Olsen and Brit Marling, respectively, which Hope notes was enormously useful. "They both have that key marketing quality of a super-attractive, super-talented and really smart spokesperson that people want to know more about and learn about."

The production teams behind both movies also stood out. Charismatic, ambitious and prolific, the "tribal filmmaking" embodied by "Martha's" Borderline Films (director Sean Durkin, along with writer-directors Antonio Campos and Josh Mond) and "Another Earth's" Mike Cahill and co-writer Marling, suggest a commitment that could pay larger dividends in the long run for the specialty division. Searchlight's production president Claudia Lewis said as much in a press release, “We hope to make many more films with Borderline Films—this exceptional team of young filmmakers.” (Searchlight execs refused to comment for this story.)

UTA's David Flynn, who worked on the "Martha" sale, points to the new batch of strong young voices in making Sundance 2011 memorable. "Yes, the budgets were small, but you have this amazing new talent," he says.

The more buoyant general mood of the industry may also help explain the buys.

"Timing always has something to do with these things," says "Martha" producer Campos, whose debut "Afterschool" premiered in Cannes 2008, but took many months before landing a modest distribution deal with IFC Films.

"Who knows if 'Afterschool' premiered this year rather than in 2008 if the market would have responded differently," he says. "But 'Martha' struck a chord at Sundance and the marketplace was in a different mindset. I think people were excited about cinema again. And I think that we, as a company, have been able to make enough films in the last couple years that people are paying attention more."

UTA Independent Film Group co-president Rena Ronson, who helped seal the "Martha" deal, feels that the entire industry is reaching a new status quo, with movies being made at -- and sold for -- the right price.

"There was also more demand this year - not just because of slow sales in past years or fewer movies being made - but also because we had great directors with fresh takes and some really original stories," she says. "I think that's what resonates in the marketplace now. I'd like to believe there is a shift, and it's a shift towards good movies."

Hope, a longtime advocate for paradigm shifts in the specialty business, cites a Sundance story by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis: "I was taken by her phrase, 'America has developed a taste for non-corporate filmmaking.'"

This article is related to: Features, Filmmaker Toolkit, Distribution, Festival Strategy, Sundance Film Festival