By Gregg Goldstein gcgoldstein@yahoo.com

Day Four of Sundance: Spread-ing the Wealth as Sales Sail Into Sunday (news)

Bitter cold may have finally settled on Park City, but film execs were basking in the afterglow of Senator’s $5 million Brooklyn’s Finest pickup Saturday night, and warmed by the heat that could make Ashton Kutcher’s sex comedy Spread one of the biggest sales of the festival. On the flip side, a gay panic comedy with unknowns, Humpday, was in talks to make a deal with (rumor had it) Sony Pictures Classics or another small-scale specialty distributor.

After fest upon fest of disappointing big-name projects, Spread almost seemed too good to be true: a Sundance comedy with name actors (and nudity!) that seemed to live up to its commercial promise. Kutcher plays a wannabe gigolo with a variety of clients who seemingly meets his match (Anne Heche). The very indie director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) delivered a less-than-indie movie, and while Sundance purists could balk, in this economy it was cause for celebration. Any number of new distributors (Summit, Senator, Overture) looking for mainstream films on the cheap would be a good fit.
William Morris Independent’s Cassian Elwes, whose company co-repped the Finest sale with CAA, said “we were very conscious about getting our sale done within 24 hours of its premiere,” in part to give the market a much-needed psychological boost. The unfinished film was rushed into Sundance because the sellers didn’t want to wait until Cannes, he said, and to capitalize on having many key buyers assembled together. Senator president Mark Urman tracked down Elwes’ hotel room Friday night and knocked on his door at 2am, convincing sellers his new distribution firm was right for the film.

While it’s too early for buyers to be singing Happy Days are Here Again, the sale of Finest (despite some harsh criticism) and the appeal of Spread gives hope that the Jim Carrey/Ewan McGregor gay prison love comedy “I Love You Phillip Morris,” will live up to the same commercial expectations, even if it needs a little tweaking in the edit room. (Late-night Lil’ Wayne doc The Carter may also benefit from the up-with-stars mood). But even before the Sunday night Eccles premiere of Morris, buyers will have a host of films to scout.

An Education, Arlen Faber and World’s Greatest Dad are just some of the films showing promise. Check out the full list at the 10 Days of Sundance Sales Chart, and check it again late, late Sunday night to see which films beat the odds to score a sale.

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“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. It’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful. People don’t realize what goes into making a movie like that. It’s mind-blowing. It’s just insane, it’s hurting the business, it’s getting people to not see a movie. In Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck.’ But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”
~ Brett Ratner Has A Sad

“The loss of a local newspaper critic is a real loss. People who know the local audience and know the local cultural scene are very important resources. You can’t just substitute the stuff that comes in from nowhere through syndication or the wire. I think at the same time, some of the newer outlets have really beefed up and improved their coverage and made room for criticism. The real problem is in the more specialized art forms — fine arts, classical music, dance and jazz, say. There is a real slowing of critical voices, partly because those art forms have smaller audiences. Newspapers and magazines can say that doesn’t get enough traffic, so we don’t have room for that. To me, that’s especially worrisome. This is the opposite of what newspapers are supposed to do, which is not to try to figure out what people are already interested in and recite that back to them, but to hopefully guide them to something that they should be interested in, connecting potential audiences with more interesting work.

“Then again, not everyone needs a critic. People have been going to movies for more than 100 years now, and probably the vast majority of those people have not read movie reviews or cared what critics thought. But there has always been an important subset that wants to know more, that wants to think about what they’ve seen and what they’re going to see, and wants someone to think along with. I think critics are important, not just as dispensers of consumer advice — though that’s certainly part of it, too — but as trusted voices and companions for people to argue with in your head when you’re going to movies or afterwards.”
~ A. O. Scott