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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“We’ve talked about this before in the past, my obsession with the Shakespearean histories having the ideal combination of the sweet and the sour. In ‘Henry IV, Part II’ which we’ve discussed before, in the end of that story it’s very complex and haunting because Prince Hal becomes Henry the King, and he has transcended his hoodlum days and at the ceremony is Falstaff, his good friend with whom he has really fucked around and been a loser with, and Falstaff comes up to him and says, ‘Now that you’re king we can really party,’ and the king famously says, ‘I know thee not, old man.’ It becomes Henry IV’s anointment and Falstaff’s catastrophe. That’s life. I have experienced very little unfettered triumph. There are moments, such as when my children are born, but even that comes with new fears and anxieties. In a sense the better you can communicate that life is both at once, the more powerful over time something becomes. One strives for something where the threads are there because it lasts in way that is very palpable. The idea of a tragedy is powerful in literature and theater, but in cinema it doesn’t work, certainly not commercially, and less so critically. Why is that? I think it has to do with how movies are so close to us.”
~ James Gray

 

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