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Let's Make a Deal: Sundance Hype vs. Reality

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik January 30, 2008 at 3:23AM

Let's Make a Deal: Sundance Hype vs. Reality
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What's a good deal for a film and distributor to hash out at a film festival? Since writing this article about Sony Pictures Classics' Sundance buying spree and what it means for the films, Sundance, and the indie landscape, I've learned a few things.

1) There is always someone who is going to say that a company paid too much for a film. When word first got out, apparently incorrectly, that Sony Classics paid "close to a million dollars" for "Frozen River," the company contacted me to set the record straight: Not only did they not pay close to a million dollars, but according to sources, they paid about a quarter that amount. Never trust the numbers you read in the trades. Everyone has an agenda, whether it's distributors lowballing their offers (to seem frugal) or sales agents elevating them (to seem like they got a big deal).

2) $250,000 is not always a good deal for a Sundance film. With the headline-grabbing acquisitions ranging from $3-$5-$10 million, $250,000 sounds like a steal. As filmmakers, if you have a budget that was closer to $1 million, I suspect $250,000 doesn't sound that hot. But if it's just for U.S. rights, perhaps you could make up the rest of your budget in overseas TV and theatrical sales. You hope. But $250,000 can still be a high price to pay for a film that might only make that much in theaters, if you add in the costs of marketing, etc. (I'm sure some distributors would like to buy your film for $50,000). So is it a good deal? It all depends on how the film performs, which has much to do with crowded release calendars, the weather and competing world events.

3.) Indie films should never be expected to make Hollywood sales. What should an independent or Indiewood film expect to make in today's cutthroat marketplace, anyway? If it's well reviewed, taps into a few niche markets, maybe even does some crossover business? "I'm Not There" is looking at $4 million. "Into the Wild" will likely just crack $20 million. "No Country for Old Men" recently passed $50 million. "Juno" broke $100 million. All should be counted as successes, I suspect. In today's studio-dominated indie landscape, where expectations run high for the next "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Juno," it feels like if an indie film doesn't make $100 million, it's some kind of misstep. This is ridiculous, of course. And it speaks of the way crass commercialism has entered the indie film business and corrupted it. No Sundance film should be expected to make $50 million, or $20 million, for that matter. Fuck it, they shouldn't be expected to make anything. They should just be good movies.