By Gregg Goldstein gcgoldstein@yahoo.com

Sundance ’09 Opener By Gregg Goldstein (news)

By Gregg Goldstein
As the global economy teeters on the edge of the abyss, the parka-clad indie film community gathers once again in Park City for its annual ritual of celebrating (and, God willing, buying and selling) movies.
The on-the-record buzz phrase you most often hear is “cautiously optimistic,” with an emphasis on caution. Dig a bit deeper, however, and the caution has an edge of panic.
“There’s a lot of fear out there,” says Cinetic Media founder John Sloss. While pointing to several Fall boxoffice successes indicating health in the specialty film arena, the man who helped make Sundance Sundance, is tellingly cutting his traditionally huge Cinetic Media slate from 19 films last year to 10 this year, including the late-added Plum Pictures comedy “The Winning Season” starring Sam Rockwell and Emma Roberts. “We believe in the quality of what we’re taking, [but] we’re taking fewer films for passion. There are fewer buyers, and it came down to the number of available films we thought could do business.” Both Sloss and another seller with several high profile, star-laden films to brag about seemed genuinely uncertain how this year’s sales would be.


Industry execs experienced their own economic meltdown well before the rest of the world. Casualties in the past year include Warner Independent, Picturehouse, ThinkFilm, Yari Film Group… specialty divisions condensed to mostly genre fare [Paramount Vantage] or rid of it entirely [Focus Features, now with 100% less Rogue Pictures].
The distributors who’ve survived still have slates to fill and need product, but execs aren’t certain if they’ll be around to release it. Buyers are well aware they’re at the whim of their corporate overlords, many of whom could make more staff or division cuts as the economy worsens. Sellers remember Harvey Weinstein, Mark Urman and others waving big checks for films that ended up dumped, sold to other companies or returned to sender. Or buyers wiped off the map a year later. The traditional gambles for both sides have to be right, and so does the price.
“No one wants to look like a dummy for overpaying,” says Endeavor Independent head Graham Taylor, who’s repping or co-repping eight films. (The fruit of agencies’ indie packaging efforts over the past few years can be seen in their large lineups and a host of co-repped films featuring their respective talents. CAA, for one, is handling 11 projects). Several of Endeavor’s films feature traditionally risky Sundance subject matter, from apartheid (the thriller “Endgame”) to family tragedy (“The Greatest,” repped with CAA), but Taylor is undaunted.
“The idea of people only liking upbeat films in a depressed economy is horseshit,” he says. “There’s cautious optimism [among buyers]. People want a movie they can make money with, or that awards potential.” He has a point: quality has won out more often in recent months. How else to explain Toronto buyers nabbing an Iraq war film [ “The Hurt Locker”] well before the fest’s end, yet letting a Jennifer Aniston-toplined comedy sell to a video company weeks later, with only a service deal for theatrical (Sidney Kimmel Entertainment’s “Management”).
Nonetheless, with talk of the next great depression everywhere, escapism is ruling the minds of most buyers.
The biggest sales questions of the fest center on that most lusted-after commodity, comedies, another key part of Taylor’s slate. Two of this year’s biggest comedic rolls of the dice are also, according to one studio specialty division exec, two of the only three that his skeptical acquisition colleagues feel have “real commercial potential”: “I Love You Phillip Morris,” starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as jailhouse lovers, and “Spread,” a sex satire starring Ashton Kutcher and Anne Heche. Both are co-repped by CAA and Endeavor. (Other comic risks include the dark Robin Williams comedy “World’s Greatest Dad” and the faux doc “Paper Heart,” which one exec who spied a screener said was cute but not commercial, despite co-star Michael Cera.)
The third film viewed with the highest hopes is the CAA/William Morris Independent-repped “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a cop drama for which helmer Antoine Fuqua seemingly placed calls to every actor who had a career highlight in a cop drama, from his “Training Day” star Ethan Hawke to Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Wesley Snipes and Ellen Barkin. “It’s a really tough market, but we’re not afraid of it” says producer John Thompson. “I think we did this [premiere at Sundance] because we really believe in the film.”
While this is the dream lineup of high-seven-figure sales (or more?), reality has a way of changing buyers plans. Who would’ve guessed that the buzz films from last year’s opening weekend would be documentaries about Roman Polanski and Midwestern teens? Or that low-bidding companies like Sony Pictures Classics would take advantage of the slow market and play with the high rollers?
Adding to all this uncertainty is the oft-referenced Sundance effect, making even great audience reaction suspect. The euphoria that greeted the 2006 Sundance debut of “Little Miss Sunshine” – far more enthusiastic than at the film’s New York premiere – was matched in its sale [$10.5 million] and theaters [$59.9 million]. The euphoria that greeted “Hamlet 2” last year (enhanced, no doubt, by dozens of downbeat dramas then failing at the boxoffice) was not. [$10 million sale, $4.8 million gross].
While these issues concern the Senators, Overtures and Summits of the world, the IFCs and their brethren will likely benefit. Such distractions may clear the way for more breakthrough docs for established sales agents of smaller films such as Submarine. Two getting good buzz are the ad agency study “Art & Copy” and the Internet boom tale “We Live in Public.”
IFC exec Arianna Bocco is one of the cautiously optimistic. Filling the IFC In Theaters 25-film day-and-date slate and the straight-to-VOD Festival Direct slate (ramping up from four to six films a month this year) is a busier endeavor than most, but there’s little pressure for a quick buy even in a hot market. “People are more realistic about what expectations are now, and the marketplace needs to level out to something more realistic,” she says. “A lot of deals will probably get done after the festival.”
But what everyone wants to know is: what will sell, and when? To that end, I’ll be handicapping what may be a handicapped sales market, posting a daily roundup of what’s screening, what’s notable, the odds each film has of getting picked up and why. It’s far from an exact science, and the odds will change as word-of-mouth and buyer interest ebbs and flows. Check back for a daily roundup, and place your bets.

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“When books become a thing, they can no longer be fine.

“Literary people get mad at Knausgård the same way they get mad at Jonathan Franzen, a writer who, if I’m being honest, might be fine. I’m rarely honest about Jonathan Franzen. He’s an extremely annoying manI have only read bits and pieces of his novels, and while I’ve stopped reading many novels even though they were pretty good or great, I have always stopped reading Jonathan Franzen’s novels because I thought they were aggressively boring and dumb and smug. But why do I think this? I didn’t read him when he was a new interesting writer who wrote a couple of weird books and then hit it big with ‘The Corrections,’ a moment in which I might have picked him up with curiosity and read with an open mind; I only noticed him once, after David Foster Wallace had died, he became the heir apparent for the Great American Novelist position, once he had had that thing with Oprah and started giving interviews in which he said all manner of dumb shit; I only noticed him well after I had been told he was An Important Writer.

“So I can’t and shouldn’t pretend that I am unmoved by the lazily-satisfied gentle arrogance he projects or when he is given license to project it by the has-the-whole-world-gone-crazy development of him being constantly crowned and re-crowned as Is He The Great American Writer. What I really object to is this, and if there’s anything to his writing beyond it, I can’t see it and can’t be bothered. Others read him and tell me he’s actually a good writer—people whose critical instincts I have learned to respect—so I feel sure that he’s probably a perfectly fine, that his books are fine, and that probably even his stupid goddamned bird essays are probably also fine.

“But it’s too late. He has become a thing; he can’t be fine.”
~ Aaron Bady

“You know how in postproduction you are supposed to color-correct the picture so everything is smooth and even? Jean-Luc wants the opposite. He wants the rupture. Color and then black and white, or different intensities of color. Or how in this film, sometimes you see the ratio of the frame change after the image begins. That happens when he records from his TV onto his old DVCAM analog machine, which is so old we can’t even find parts when it needs to be repaired. The TV takes time to recognize and adjust to the format on the DVD or the Blu-ray. Whether it’s 1:33 or 1:85. And one of the TVs he uses is slower than the other. He wants to keep all that. I could correct it, but he doesn’t want me to. See, here’s an image from War and Peace. He did the overlays of color—red, white, and blue—using an old analog video effects machine. That’s why you have the blur. When I tried to redo it in digital, I couldn’t. The edges were too sharp. And why the image jitters—I don’t know how he did that. Playing with the cable maybe. Handmade. He wants to see that. It’s a gift from his old machine.”
~ Fabrice Aragno