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Sundance Film Festival: Sellers anticipating a bounty of deals

January 18, 2012 | 10:47 am

Sundance 2012Every January, the Sundance Film Festival can be counted on for several things. The presence of a John Hawkes movie. “Intimate” dinner parties for some 200 people. And eternal sunniness about the film sales market.

That optimism is running particularly high at this year’s event, opening Thursday in Park City, Utah. The country’s most prominent film festival is coming off one of its most robust markets ever, as more than two dozen independently produced movies landed distribution deals last January. More encouraging to sellers, not a single movie in this year’s high-profile premiere and dramatic competition sections arrives in the resort town with a deal in place.

“I think it’s going to be wild,” said Richard Klubeck, a sales agent at United Talent Agency, whose Sundance slate includes the Rashida Jones-Andy Samberg romantic dramedy “Celeste & Jesse Forever” and Rodrigo Cortés’ supernatural thriller “Red Lights.”

PHOTOS: How last year's films fared after Sundance

“This year is going to be very interesting,” said John Sloss, whose Cinetic Media is representing, among other festival titles, the dramas “The First Time,” “Luv,” “The House I Live In” and “Safety Not Guaranteed.” “Last year was a big year for sales, but the movies were not that commercial. This year’s films are better.”

Indeed, like a novice skier on a black-diamond trail, buyers might want to take note of the caution flags: Many of 2011’s high-profile sales fizzled after leaving the festival.

Two of last year’s most talked-about titles, “Like Crazy” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” failed to reach even $4 million at the domestic box office. That was a particular disappointment for the former film, which Paramount Pictures and the production company Indian Paintbrush bought for an estimated $4 million to $5 million. Meanwhile, the most expensive 2011 sale, the Weinstein Co.’s estimated $7-million to $8-million pickup of a Tobey Maguire black comedy titled “The Details,” has not even been given a release date a year after it played in Sundance.

One of Weinstein’s other Sundance pickups, “Our Idiot Brother,” grossed more than $24.8 million in domestic release, but the studio paid a lot for the Paul Rudd comedy (perhaps as much as $7 million, according to reports at the time) and may have spent about twice that on marketing. The Weinstein Co. did not respond to request to comment on its expenditures.

The 2011 festival’s two hits were “Margin Call,” which Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions bought for less than $2 million, and “The Guard,” which Sony Pictures Classics bought for $1 million. Both films grossed about $5.3 million in domestic release, but “Margin Call” also was a success on video-on-demand, generating more than $4 million in revenue, with far fewer marketing dollars than “Our Idiot Brother.”

And unlike Sundance's 2009 and 2010 editions, in which the films “Precious,” “Winter’s Bone” and “The Kids Are All Right” went on to make a lot of noise during Oscar season, not a single Sundance 2011 movie has been a force in this year’s awards season.

PHOTOS: Scene at Sundance 2012

Still, Sundance remains the most important U.S. market for movies made outside the studio system, and filmmakers looking for distribution deals know being picked for the festival is a nearly impossible feat (counting all festival categories, 111 features were chosen from 4,042 submissions).

“It’s like dying and going to heaven,” said Don Coscarelli, the writer and director of the end-of-days story “John Dies at the End,” which is playing in the festival’s “Park City at Midnight” genre section. “I was thrilled to get in, but it was sobering to think of all of the filmmakers out there who didn’t get accepted.”

Before Sundance, the veteran genre director (“Bubba Ho-Tep”) struggled to attract anyone to his sales screenings. “If anybody showed up, it was the secretary of a secretary.”

Even films that traffic in difficult subject matter could find an audience, buyers and sellers alike say. “Smashed,” a movie about a young couple (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul) battling alcohol addiction, is produced by the same filmmakers behind last year’s “Like Crazy.” Their new movie carries high hopes because, unlike most addiction stories, it strikes a tone that’s light and even dryly comedic.

“I don’t pretend to know anything about anything when it comes to the business side,” Winstead said. “But I hope because of the way we handled the topic that these are people an audience will want to root for and hang out with.”

Sundance veterans appreciate that festival lightning doesn’t often strike twice. Two years ago, Cortés’ “Buried” North American rights sold for $3.2 million — and while the claustrophobic drama with Ryan Reynolds trapped in a coffin grossed nearly $20 million overseas, it took in just $1 million in domestic release. The Spanish director is returning to Park City with the paranormal thriller “Red Lights,” among the festival’s top sales titles.

“It’s like trying to repeat your honeymoon — it’s always wrong,” Cortés said of how he will temper his Sundance expectations. “In a way, we came in through the back door with ‘Buried.’ This time, it’s very different,” he said of the higher-profile “Red Lights,” which stars Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro. “You have more pressure, and much more expectations.”

Graham Taylor of William Morris Endeavor, whose Sundance slate has six features (including the rap story “Filly Brown” and the fight flick “V/H/S”) as well as two documentaries, said he’s encouraged that several new buyers will be present at Sundance. Those upstarts include FilmDistrict, Open Road and the recently launched Film Arcade.

“I feel very optimistic,” Taylor said. “There’s action, people need movies, and we have a really good slate.”


PHOTOS: Scene at Sundance 2012

Sundance 2012: Competition lineup

PHOTOS: How last year's films fared after Sundance

— John Horn and Steve Zeitchik

Photo: A scene from Main Street, in downtown Park City, Utah, on Tuesday, two days before the start of the Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times