Sundance 2010: 'Buried' lands first big deal, at $3.2 million
In the first blockbuster sale of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Lionsgate has bought the claustrophobic thriller "Buried" following an aggressive negotiation Sunday. The studio behind the Sundance hits "Open Water," "Saw" and "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" paid about $3.2 million for the film's North American distribution rights, getting a movie that attracted several other interested distributors, most notably Fox Searclight.
The $3-million movie by Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes screened to a raucous crowd at 11:30 p.m. Saturday and the bidding on the film with sales agent United Talent Agency started in earnest as soon as the sun rose Sunday morning. Joe Drake, Lionsgate's motion picture group president, watched the 94-minute movie back in Los Angeles, after his distribution executives saw the film in its initial Park City at Midnight screening. With Drake's enthusiastic support, the distribution deal was wrapped up quickly.
"'Buried' is a powerful reminder that all you really need for an unforgettable movie experience is a great story, inventive filmmaking and brilliant acting," Jason Constantine, Lionsgate's president of acquisitions and co-productions, said in a statement.
The movie unfolds entirely within the confines of a coffin buried somewhere in Iraq. Trapped inside the cramped wooden box is Paul Conroy ("The Proposal's" Ryan Reynolds), a civilian truck driver who has been captured following a roadside bombing of his convoy. His unseen captors are seeking a $5-million ransom, and Conroy has only a mobile phone (with a dying battery) to somehow try to raise the money.
As Conroy calls everywhere seeking help, he is met with answering machines from loved ones, heartless corporate bosses and ineffectual rescuers. Conroy has a cigarette lighter to see around the coffin, which is quickly filling with sand, when not visited by a long snake. As time is running out, Conroy becomes increasingly desperate.
Among other companies interested in the film, according to people close to the talks, was Fox Searchlight. Some of the festival's most prominent distribution executives -- including from Fox Searchlight -- were not at the midnight screening, instead seeing the movie Sunday morning in a public screening at Salt Lake City's Broadway Centre Cinemas.
Because Drake's Los Angeles screening started earlier, Lionsgate gained the inside negotiating advantage, according to people familiar with the deal, and the studio rushed to close the deal before the Salt Lake screening was finished. At least one other bidder feared the asking price was too high.
Working from screenwriter Chris Sparling's original script, "Buried" director Cortes shot the movie in Barcelona, using seven coffins (some with removable sides to accommodate cameras) to shoot the actions. Reynolds says he suffered from countless burns and splinters in making the movie, and did not use a stunt double for the movie's most harrowing scenes.
Early fan boy reaction was positive. Lionsgate did not immediately say when it was releasing the film, but it could be in theaters as early as late spring. With its marketing commitments for the film, Lionsgate's overall deal could reach $10 million.
Sales have been particularly slow at the 26th annual festival for movies made outside the studio system, considered the nation's most important film festival. Many of the festival's earliest -- and most star-laden --movies did not sell in the hours (and even days) after their first sales screenings.
Instead, the buyers' attention was focused on smaller genre titles like the low-budget road comedy "Douchebag," the digital-age romance documentary "Catfish" and the Afghanistan war documentary "Restrepo."
Among the high-profile movies that did not immediatelty sell were Ben Affleck and Kevin Costner in the layoff story "The Company Men," Natalie Portman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the dark comedy "Hesher," Kristen Stewart and James Gandolfini in the runaway redemption tale "Welcome to the Rileys" and James Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg in "Howl."
-- John Horn
Photo of Ryan Reynolds in "Buried" courtesy The Peter Safran Co.