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David Poland

By David Poland

Sundance Sales

To my eye, Sundance sales went very much along with the tone of this year’s festival… consistently good, but nothing truly epic. (A few docs could be on a list of exceptions.)

There are a few Actual Surprises

1. Searchlight Rampage – Searchlight loaded the coffers for 2011. The year was looking to be one of those 6 release years going into Sundance with very little between mid-March and September. What they grabbed were two movies that will be marketed heavily to teen girls (Homework and Martha Marcy May Marlene), one tiny movie that will get a ton of media attention for its lead actress (Another Earth), and a film that fits into the company’s Asian bent, Bengali Detective, which will join their Wayne Wang film and their John Madden project, loaded with British stars, set in a Bangalore nursing home.

It makes sense, though the only film I think they really see as a big commercial opportunity is Bengali Detective, which could be a franchise in a growing worldwide market.

2. Focus Picks-Up Pariah – Do they think they can turn this film into the next Precious? Are they just mining the director, who they have signed for a tentative next film? A real surprise that this film ended up at a studio dependent.

3. Paramount picks up Like Crazy. Like Searchlight, one has to assume that they think they can make hay with a less musical, more brooding version of (500) Days of Summer. And they might. But it’s going to be a challenge for a marketing department that came from Vantage, but is now in Iron Man mode.

Less Surprising

1. Documentarians are getting into the VOD option in a serious way. IFC’s deal for Buck and Magnolia’s for Page One really spoke to the filmmakers’ interest in getting a theatrical, but extending the conversation with VOD. Don’t be surprised to see Being Elmo go that way when it lands either, though the popularity of the film at the all-adult fest may inspire someone to treat it more like a mainstreamed film, able to cross the $10m theatrical mark. (Whether it actually can is another conversation.)

2. Sony Classics actually bought one movie at Sundance, The Guard. Brenden Gleason is funny and beloved and the studio will hope that his following wants to see him before those DVD sales start. Take Shelter, from Jeff Nichols, was bought before the festival. So was Morgan Spurlock’s Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

3. Lionsgate goes Oscar chasing with The Devil’s Double, a movie that looks bigger than its budget and which features Dominic Cooper in a performance that we should still be talking about next year this time, as we wait to see if his Oscar nomination has landed.

The Rest

For The Weinstein Company, Dinner For Schmucks‘ $73 million would be a massive hit. So… they buy the Paul Rudd comedy My Idiot Brother. Pay no attention to the Wet Hot American Summer, The Shape of Things, and The Ten behind the curtain. Jacob Aaron Estes’ second film – after Mean Creek – is Maguire/Banks/Linney/Haysbert/Liotta’ed up… which means there is some bait to work with for the Brothers.

Roadside Attractions is the hot indie of the moment, having brought Oscar luster to Winter’s Bone and Biutiful. But Sundance 2011 is actually a little soft, even though the distributor is credited with 3 pick-ups. Project Nim is a great HBO doc that needed a distribution partner, so the guys who made The Cove happen make sense. Margin Call is a mainstream movie looking for indie cred (see: The Company Men) and got a little in a split deal with Lionsgate. And on the Miranda July… the one completely straight pick-up… is of the “They did $4m with her last film… we should be able to do a little better this time” variety. Plus, they have Hamish Linklater, a great theater actor with TV credentials, who will eventually be a name-remembered star.

IFC and Magnolia probably have some more films to buy on their list. But they’ll sell VOD arty sex with Perfect Sense and I Melt With You, intellectual debate with Liv Tyler’s face on it in The Ledge, and a constituency of serious movie fans with These Amazing Shadows.

After that, it’s new kids on the block. Dan Battsek’s Nat Geo is the senior member of this group, though picking up Life In One Day, which streamed on YouTube during Sundance, presents an interesting challenge. And with due respect to the rest – Anchor Bay, Dada Films, Liddell Entertainment, Motion Film Group, and Participant clearly have some cash, but none are theatrical distributors.

So… God bless to all who want to count numbers and make proclamations. And there are more titles heading to distribution deals. Being Elmo and The Interrupters are sure bets. There will be others that are pretty sure for at-least VOD deals, like The Lie, The Black Power Mix Tape, Happy, Happy, and Tyrannosaur.

It certainly was a better market than in the last two years. But the biggest ticket was $4 million and the heavy lifting on the “titles most likely” came from Searchlight, Paramount, and Focus.

I am pleased that Cassian Elwes is excited, but it feels a little more like someone who survived a near drowning and is really, really happy to be on the beach, even if the lifeguards dropped him right on a jellyfish. In terms of models, we definitely didn’t see The Future (aside from Ms July’s) at Sundance this year. But we did see some good films, some good young filmmakers, and perhaps 3 or 4 of next year’s doc Oscar nominees. But I just hate when things like this get overstated and people relax, thinking that indie is now safe and healthy. There were a handful of actual surprise sales. And yes, in years past, companies didn’t load up with cheap buys and this year they did. Some great buys. Let’s just keep our heads. Please.

3 Responses to “Sundance Sales”

  1. anghus says:

    my friend erica’s movie won the audience award in the Next category.

    then the Hollywood Reporter called it hot garbage.

  2. O-Scope picked up Bellflower. That movie kicked ass!

  3. jennab says:

    Yeah, Dave, I would really appreciate some analysis on acquisition prices v. production costs. Did anyone recoup? Probably not, and that would seem to be the sobering reality of “indie’s back!!” buzz. Not that indie filmmakers should think only in the crassest commercial terms, but the model has to be sustainable.

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