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Sundance for sale: It's a buyer's market at this year's festival

Published January 22, 2012 7:49 am

Sundance • This year, none of the movies have distribution deals — yet.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Park City • Just about everyone has something to sell at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which has an unusually large inventory of titles looking for a home with movie distributors.

All of the films in the star-laden premieres lineup are up for sale to U.S. distributors in the festival that runs through Jan. 29.

Sundance organizers believe it's the first time none of its premieres came into the independent-film showcase with domestic distribution, potentially making it a busier time for buyers to see them all along with the huge slate of movies up for sale in the festival's four main competitions, which tend to focus on newer talent.

"I guess we'll have a lot of competition, with all the premieres in kind of the same boat, so to speak," said James Marsh, whose Northern Ireland thriller "Shadow Dancer," starring Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough, is among the films on sale at Sundance. "One of the reasons we're happy to be at Sundance is that marketplace element."

The festival opened Jan. 19 with premieres of four of the 64 films playing in its U.S. and world-cinema competitions. Star-studded premieres began Jan. 20 with the debut of Lee Toland Krieger's divorce story "Celeste and Jesse Forever," with Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg and Elijah Wood, and Rodrigo Cortes' paranormal tale "Red Lights," with Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro.

In other years, at least some premieres have entered the festival with distribution already in place, such as last year's Fox Searchlight entries "Win Win" and "Cedar Rapids."

It could just be an aberration this year, with distributors that might have had something to show at Sundance unable to get the films ready in time. Whatever the reason, it means more films competing for buyers' attention throughout the festival.

Many movies that play Sundance never make it beyond the film festival circuit or wind up getting such limited theatrical release that barely anyone in the real world sees them. Filmmakers come to the festival hoping to hook up with distributors that will put the same care into releasing them that went into making them.

There have been great success stories for past Sundance acquisitions, among them "Little Miss Sunshine," "In the Bedroom," "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Garden State." Yet for every hit that emerges from Sundance, there are a dozen films virtually no one has ever heard of.

Brokering deals has never been the main goal of the festival itself, which is overseen by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute to give independent filmmakers a place to show their work. But it's good for Sundance and the indie world to have as many of its films graduate to commercial theaters as possible.

It's that sort of success that improves a filmmaker's odds of raising money to make another film, which is such a battle in the indie landscape that some directors joke that they're professional fundraisers who occasionally get to shoot a movie.

Among the premieres seeking domestic distribution at Sundance are Stephen Frears' gambling caper "Lay the Favorite," with Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rebecca Hall; Spike Lee's urban drama "Red Hook Summer"; Leslye Headland's bridesmaid comedy "Bachelorette," starring Kirsten Dunst; and Jake Schreier's geriatric jewel-thief tale "Robot and Frank," featuring Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon.

At least as important as finding a distributor is finding the right distributor, a company that loves the film as much as its creators do and will invest time and resources to get it in front of audiences.

Writer-director Julie Delpy, who co-stars with Chris Rock in the relationship comedy "2 Days in New York," said distribution rights for her film already have been sold in some countries but that her producers decided to hold off on striking a deal for its U.S. release so they could shop it around at Sundance.

"We're hoping to sell it. It's a question of how to sell it and the best person to make sure it's nurtured the right way and released the right way," said Delpy, whose film is a sequel to her 2007 comedy "2 Days in Paris."

With 117 films, most of them hunting for buyers, Sundance will be a scramble for distributors as they rush to see as many movies as they can and try to strike deals on the ones they want.

Sundance has seen occasional bidding wars that have driven the price of some films to more than $10 million, a fortune in the low-budget cinema world. Some pricey festival acquisitions, such as "Little Miss Sunshine," become hits that earn their money back many times over. Others, such as "Happy, Texas" and "Next Stop Wonderland," wind up as commercial duds.

Bidding wars have become rare in recent years as studios closed low-budget film banners and grew more cautious about throwing money around at film festivals amid the economic downturn.

Still, buyers have to be careful to avoid getting caught up in the frenzy over films that set festival crowds buzzing. A film that earns a rapturous response in the thin, high-altitude air of the Utah mountains may be met with indifference at sea level.

"You're just so busy. You have to figure out a way to see the movies and make a business decision based on the reaction at Sundance, which could be the last reaction like that for the film," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, whose Sundance acquisitions last year included Vera Farmiga's "Higher Ground" and Michael Rapaport's "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest."

"You just don't know if that reaction is going to translate to the rest of the country or the rest of the world."

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