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Sundance 2010: Documentaries could prompt a buying spurt

January 25, 2010 | 10:10 pm

Documentaries have been somewhat non grata among buyers at Sundance the past few years, the result of a number of high-profile acquisitions that went nowhere at the movie theater ("American Teen," the Midwestern high-school examination billed as a nonfiction "Breakfast Club," marked pretty much the last of the big deals back in 2008, as bidders Paramount Vantage and Sony pictures Classics duked it out for the film). Last year, some of the docs, like the Anna Wintour exploration "The September Issue," still sold, but drew fewer bidders and commanded lower prices.

As the sales climate begins to eat up again at the fest, though, the doc could stage a small comeback, as a raft of high-profile filmmakers are grabbing the spotlight. In addition to "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which has been generating sales talk since it screened Sunday night, there's interest  surrounding the Pat Tillman documentary "The Tillman Story," the lottery-winners story "Lucky" from Jeffrey Blitz (who, with "Spellbound," has one of the biggest Sundance documentaries in history), and especially "Catfish," the digital-communication exploration that buyers have been dancing with for the past three days.

Oscilloscope, the label co-founded recently by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, and Apparition, the label co-founded even more recently by indie maverick Bob Berney, are both interested in docs in general, with Berney in particular circling "Catfish." The Weinstein Company, not known in recent years for releasing docs, is keenly interested in "Catfish" too, as are a number of studios. Expect that one to go soon -- and, perhaps, for a price above what docs have recently gone for.

(There's been a changing of the guard, incidentally, on the buyer side: Overture Films, a buyer that has risen to the occasion at festivals over the past few years, is facing rumors of a restructuring or a sale. Specialty giant Focus has been cautious at Sundance since its splashy pick-up of "Hamlet 2" faltered two years ago. And The Weinstein Company may or may not have come out of acquisition hibernation when it broke a festival silent streak and acquired the Colin Firth vehicle "A Single Man" out of Toronto. In the meantime, a new raft of distributors that include Oscilloscope, Apparition and the Apparition-affiliated Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group has made an increasing number of purchases over the past few festivals.)

As of Monday afternoon, buyers were helping features pick up momentum too. Kevin Asch's debut film "Holy Rollers," from a script by Antonio Macia and starring Jesse Eisenberg as a Hasidic Jew who gets caught up in an ecstasy-smuggling ring, went over well with buyers and audiences at its Monday premiere, earning a standing ovation from part of the audience. Harvey Weinstein was among the executives at the "Rollers" screening, and several buyers said they liked the film, which has a challenging premise but intimate and marketable performances from Eisenberg and Justin Bartha. (It also may be the first movie about ultra-Orthodox Jews written by a Mormon, which Macia is -- more on this in a later post).

The strong "Rollers" premiere now makes it two well-received dramas in two days, after the Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams romantic drama "Blue Valentine" screened strongly on Sunday (and after a string of movies that included "Hesher," "Welcome to the Rileys" and "Sympathy for Delicious" went over more coolly with buyers).

Meanwhile, a coming-of-age 1980s movie called "Skateland" was generating talk among a certain smaller tier of distributors; both it and the weekend hit "Douchebag" could wind up landing deals before bigger-budgeted movies with known names. That would make those calling for the festival to go smaller and rootsier -- like, for example, the Sundance organizers -- very happy.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: A man buying a lottery ticket in "Lucky." Credit: "Lucky"

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Spellbound wasn't a "Sundance documentary"...it premiered at sxsw, played a number a regional fests in U.S., then was acquired at the Toronto International Film Festival.


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