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Sundance 2010: Will the kids be all right?

January 28, 2010 |  1:22 pm


There's nothing that gets people offering opinions -- or "opinions" -- at a film festival faster than an imminent or a recently completed sale. It basically goes down like this: First, a well-received screening gets a sales agent spinning about a film's upside and sales interest. Then, when it does sell, the buyer that lands it touts its greatness -- while the studios that didn't get or want the film whisper how the movie isn't that good in the first place.

"The Kids Are All Right," Lisa Cholodenko's domestic dramedy about a lesbian couple, their two teenage kids and the drifter/sperm-donor who comes into their lives, has been on that kind of trip at Sundance all week.

The film's premiere screening on Monday at the Library Theater had the markings of a classic Sundance breakout, though some buyers complained that some of the enthusiasm of the entourage-heavy audience felt a little staged.  (It's a time-honored Sundance tradition for filmmakers and their representatives to paper the house with people whom they ask to/hope will laugh loudly to give buyers a more favorable impression. It was something that happened, very evidently, at the premiere screenings of "The Romantics" on Wednesday and, one can't help pointing out, at "Hamlet 2," the "Kids Are All Right"-esque blockbuster sale of two years ago. Screenings for all three films took place in the cheek-by-jowl confines of the Library Center Theater, where every laugh is magnified -- a "hot room," as festival director John Cooper calls it.

The magic carpet ride for "Kids" continued the next day as the sales negotiations became the buzz of the festival, even as some studios were labeling the film as a niche play that wasn't nearly as commercial as some of the early reports had it. The noise level then ratcheted up further when Focus Features anted up about $5 million for various rights to the movie, suggesting one of the largest specialty divisions around was betting big on the picture.

(On Thursday the company officially announced the deal, which was for U.S., U.K., German and Australian rights, and which prompted Focus CEO James Schamus, who called the movie "the best in American independent film making," to note in an interview that Cholodenko is a former student of his at Columbia University "but I didn't teach her one possible thing that could have led to this movie.")

But a new twist came with the second screening Wednesday night, where it played to a press-and-industry audience for the first time. The film was coming in high on a cloud of hype, which usually means that a room could be primed for over-the-top excitement -- or for disappointment. And while the screening certainly went over well enough, with laughter at the comedic moments and intent faces during the dramatic ones, the overall response from people in the room was more muted than what was reported from the premiere.

Outside the theater, meanwhile, the chatter among a group of bloggers and reporters was one of the tempered kind. Most of us liked it well enough and thought it had its moments of comedy and drama, and the performances earned high marks. But there was little of the effusive praise one might have expected given the earlier buzz; the vibe was one of likability but not much more. Suddenly, the qualifiers from rival studios didn't seem so agenda-driven.

(On the awards front, the talk was of screenplay and performance categories. But it didn't, to most of us, feel immediately like an all-category contender.)

The most interesting thing going for "Kids" may be the way it treats the lesbian couple and their children so matter-of-factly, a political achievement as much as an artistic one. In this regard, it's not an accident that the film went to Focus, which has successfully released a number of gay-themed pictures in the past several years, including "Brokeback Mountain" and "Milk." Though this movie is lighter than both those films, it still traffics in social relevance, and as gay marriage remains a hot-button topic, emphasizing those elements may be the smart publicity way to go.

In the interview, Schamus noted that even though the film's central couple are lesbians, the movie "is one of the most pro-family movies you'll see -- a film about how people really connect in life." (Schamus also said that he was not worried the film's sex scenes would turn off conservative audiences. "There's nothing prurient about it. The sex in this movie is so joyously funny.")

Meanwhile, other sales were facing a slower burn than "Kids," though each was also feeling the strange ebb and flow that is film-festival momentum. "Catfish," expected to go earlier in the week, is scheduled for another screening this evening -- a deal will likely happen after that showing, if not before, with Apparition believed to be the frontrunner. Meanwhile, "Hesher," the dark comedy in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays an anarchist, got very mixed reactions from top-tier buyers and wound up going to niche player Newmarket, which has been trying to reestablish itself in the distribution game. And it's probably only a matter of time before both "Blue Valentine" and "Winter's Bone," the two dramas that are garnering the most attention in the competition category, land a deal. Expect the buyers to come from a pool that includes IFC, Oscilloscope and Sony Pictures Classics -- and expect the U.S. jury prize on Saturday to go to one of those two films, which would be more than all right.

--Steven Zeitchik, with additional reporting by John Horn

Photo: "The Kids Are All Right," courtesy Sundance