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Post-Sundance Indie Landscape, New Faces

by Anne Thompson
February 22, 2010 1:55 AM
2 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

The Sundance Festival unfolds in two parts: what gets seen during the festival itself, and what happens afterwards.

A week after the festival was over, Sony Pictures Classic co-president Michael Barker was still polling folks on what they liked there. Last week SPC finally acquired all U.S. and Latin American rights to Australian gangster movie Animal Kingdom, which collected the Sundance world cinema dramatic jury prize. Post-Sundance, Toronto's Phase 4 acquired Next digital title The Freebie, produced by Mark Duplass and directed by his wife, Katie Aselton. And Magnolia picked up Participant's global nuclear arms crisis doc Countdown to Zero. UPDATE: Monday, First Independent Pictures announced its buy of U.S. rights to Sundance dramatic competition film Holy Rollers. And HBO has nabbed paparazzi doc Smash His Camera.

More sales will continue to trickle out. In other words, per usual, Sundance press coverage could account for the quality of the films screened there, but not their eventual commerciality. Some unsold Sundance movies moved on to Berlin, including Welcome to the Rileys (which will likely combine a Sony homevideo and Apparition theatrical release) and Banksy's controversial Exit Through the Gift Shop.

With frantic bidding wars a thing of the past--Lisa Cholodenko's long-awaited The Kids Are All Right, as anticipated, scored the fest's biggest sale, to Focus Features--smaller, slower deals are the order of the day. Cholodenko's $5-million deal was half the $10-million top sales of the big auction era. (Focus, which released Brokeback Mountain, was willing to bank on the film's gay parents subject; Fox Searchlight dropped out of the bidding.)

Thompson on Hollywood

As a spate of small deals continue to be announced, indie observers scratch their heads at the new mom-and-pop players. DIY indeed. Everyone seems to be getting in the act, from self-employed former staffers at shuttered specialty divisions to publishing houses and homevideo outfits. But that doesn't disguise the fact that most of these deals are window-dressing on quick theatrical bookings on the road to DVD and VOD.

During Eugene Hernandez and Peter Broderick's thorough and informative panel on every kind of practical film distribution anyone could envision, it was revealing that there's still only one way to make real money: via a robust theatrical release. That's still the dream. Sure, social media and self-marketing and mysterious VOD revenue sharing (when distributors like IFC and Magnolia will share concrete info only with the filmmaker) are alternatives. But they don't yet yield serious bucks. Split rights are more common, which tends to leave the bigger distributors out of the equation--or, as in Fox Searchlight's Crazy Heart, which was originally tied up with Paramount Vantage and a Country Music Television deal--a drawn-out dealmaking process. UPDATE: The indie distribution road can be hazardous: Sundance panelist Chris Hyams had to shutter fest-community marketer B-Side, which had branched into releasing films, when it lost VC funding. (Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay probes what went wrong).

Thompson on Hollywood

Last year's Sundance felt like a mid-way course correction between the out-of-whack inflated expectations of a vanishing indie world and something scary and unknown around the corner. This year's fest, under new management, felt pared back, sharp, and on the right track. The changes were dramatic, even compared to September's Toronto Fest, which saw the last spate of crazy-money movies not selling to distribs.

This Sundance programmed no obvious for-sale titles of dubious quality. Of course, certain films did ignite debate among attendees, from Mark Ruffalo's directorial debut Sympathy for Delicious, which was not well-reviewed or acquired (but scored a consolation special jury prize), to Michael Winterbottom's hot-button The Killer Inside Me, which scored an IFC sale (as did Lars von Trier's Antichrist out of Cannes) because it ignited controversy--due to its hands-on violence toward women. (The movie, one of Winterbottom's most stylish, earned a C grade at indieWIRE's popular criticWIRE poll.) IFC also acquired the feminist doc Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

Thompson on Hollywood

While there were plenty of Sundance parties and swag suites, their scale was smaller. The conspicuous spenders were companies like MySpace, which kept its cafe at Village at the Lift packed with young celebs, and Sony Pictures Classics, which threw several dinners for its fest entries at the swanky hill-top Greenhouse. Fox Searchlight's party for Cyrus--which drew the Duplass brothers, David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly, was a small-scale appetizer-only affair. After all, the movie, shot with digital cameras, cost just $7 million: a dramatic increase from their last budget of $80,000. The difference? Fox Searchlight bankrolled a few movie stars, who nonetheless played well within the Duplass's established naturalistic style.

All around, the filmmakers felt younger, leaner, hungrier. The old "what deal can we score?" vibe was replaced by a "we're all in this together" feeling. Just a look at the players told it all. Even Harvey Weinstein spent more time at the Yarrow than the mountaintop Stein Erickson Lodge, was ubiquitous at screenings, and persuasively landed one of the week's hot titles: the marital drama Blue Valentine, followed post-fest by hot doc The Tillman Story. As Miramax sent out its shutter notices, Weinstein seemed to be back in the business he did much to grow. (On the other hand, he also has a second Ryan Gosling film, All Good Things; so it's in his interest to control both.)

Thompson on Hollywood

Apparition's Bob Berney brought in Joan Jett to perform in advance of the fest's biggest media draw, The Runaways, starring Twilight stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, but didn't buy anything during the fest. Lionsgate subsid Roadside Attractions acquired Debra Granik's dramatic jury prize winner, Winter's Bone. After ten years in the service distrib business, Richard Abramowitz has expanded his efforts to bi-coastal event-movie service, Area 23a, partnered with Kirt Eftekhar, with New Video handling homevideo and VOD. Ex-Warner Independent execs Paul Federbush and Laura Kim launched Red Flag Releasing with their first pick-up, hot-button Sundance doc 8: The Mormon Proposition. "There are going to be a lot more creative deals," said Berney, who is no stranger to service arrangements. He thinks releases like Freestyle Releasing and Pandemic Marketing's Me and Orson Welles are "the new model."

Publisher Hannover House's film and video arm, aided by One Way Out Media's Tom Ortenberg (ex of Lionsgate and Weinstein Co.), landed the execrably reviewed Joel Schumacher film Twelve. While a year ago Mark Urman was buying films like Antoine Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest for Senator Entertainment, he eventually left that troubled concern and now runs Paladin, one of several "service" companies that provide hybrid distribution for films. Urman and ex-William Morris Independent agent Cassian Elwes are on the verge of announcing a fund that will supply not only P & A but acquisition funds for movies. Urman is still in the hunt for some titles. While Sundance "was toxic last year," said Urman, this time, "it felt collegial. Everyone behaved well. There was no back-biting, no pissing over films and one another. It was pleasant."

In general the fest reflected a more digital flavor, as folks from Slashfilm's @davechensky and @ebertchicago to @shawnlevy and @PeterTravers instantly tweeted their reactions to each movie. Twitter and blog reactions likely had more currency and impact than longer thoughtful reviews and features. Certainly, the fan site raves after the debut of Buried did not hurt; the midnight horror flick swiftly became the first big sale of the fest.

Paramount Vantage's pre-fest acquisition of Davis Guggenheim's education expose Waiting for Superman was not a big-ticket buy. The studio considered the stranger-than-fiction social network documentary Catfish, screening it post-fest for a recruited research screening, but Relativity's Rogue label wound up closing a deal with director Brett Ratner attached as executive producer (not what Paramount had in mind).

Newmarket picked up the badly-reviewed Hesher, starring fest fave Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He reps the new model movie star: he was tweeting invitations to submit footage to a video-in-the-making that was edited and screened at New Frontiers before the festival was over.

All around, even the higher-end specialty films were dramatically less expensive. Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right would have cost twice as much in another market, but to get it made, the writer-director and her actors worked within their limitations. A good-looking movie with talented talking-heads filmed in few locations, The Kids Are All Rightis the new norm. Nicole Holefcener made her talkie Manhattan drama Please Give for a mere $3 million, backed by Sony Pictures Classics. It's wonderful: Rebecca Hall steals the movie from wily performers Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt and Amanda Peet. Not to mention Dick Van Dyke Show stalwart Ann Morgan Guilbert, 82.

New talent is always one of the draws of Sundance: this year's standouts include Mexican actor-turned-director director Diego Luna (Abel), actress Jennifer Lawrence, who ably carries the harsh realism of Winter's Bone) and actress-director Katie Aselton (The Freebie), wife of Mark Duplass, who told her to make her own hand-held digital movie so she'd stop complaining about not working.

The fact that we're going to be seeing more "European" low-budget talkies is not a terrible thing. Nor is the new spirit of innovation and a sense that the world has returned to the sanity of lowered expectations. As Focus chief James Schamus said at indieWIRE/MOMA's Indie Summit last fall, far fewer people are making as much money as they used to. Which leaves everyone scrapping around making movies for the love of the game. On shuttle buses, waiting for screenings and trudging through the slush on Park Avenue, I heard filmmakers and a new order of collaborative talent reps, marketers and distributors actually sharing info and throwing around ideas. What do they have to lose? "Reality set in," said DIY guru Lance Weiler. "The fog lifted. These are the new realities. How can we innovate in the space? It's a move toward a different industry which is recalibrating itself."

Must-Sees
Abel
Blue Valentine
Cyrus
Get Low
The Kids Are All Right
Please Give
A Prophet
Restrepo
Welcome to the Rileys
Winter's Bone

Good not Great:
Cane Toads 3-D: The Conquest
Casino Jack and the U.S. of Money (Alex Gibney plans to make some trims)
Douchebag
The Killer Inside Me
Mother and Child
Nowhere Boy

Misses:
Hesher
Howl
Jack Goes Boating
Runaways

Great Buzz:
I Am Love
Animal Kingdom
Bran Nue Dae
Catfish
Company Men
Exit through the Gift Shop
Four Lions
The Freebie
happythankyoumoreplease
Smash his Camera
The Tillman Story
Waiting for Superman

RELATED LINKS:
THR rounds up the fest sales, while LA Weekly's Karina Longworth lays out the new indie landscape. And here's the LAT's list of seven Sundance pics not to miss.

2 Comments

  • chubbco | February 22, 2010 10:57 AMReply

    What Mary said. Nice bit of analysis and well-filtered experience. Might disagree with some of the movie rankings but you caught the vibe exactly.

  • mary | February 22, 2010 10:19 AMReply

    One the best articles about Sundance 2010 I had read. Thank you, Anne.

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