Sell it on the Mountain

Risky Business at Sundance 2003

Park City, UtahDealmaking at the Sundance Film Festival is an annual pastime in Park City, right up there with skiing, star-gazing, and let's not forget watching movies. Despite plenty of celebrity and hype, the 19th edition of the indie film industry's big event, deemed "soft" by one exec, focused on a decidedly small pack of discoveries. "It's like lemmings off a cliff," says entertainment attorney Steven Beer, referring to the perennial rush to acquire new films at Sundance. Year after year, we love tracking which films everyone is circling, but are any of these films really going to succeed? I hope so. But that's the exception, not the rule."

Doing business based on exceptions is risky, but it doesn't deter distributors. Of the 16 films acquired and released out of last year's exceptionally busy Sundance bazaar (a result of the truncated Toronto 2001 fall festival), only five broke $1 million at the box office. Grand Jury Prize winner Personal Velocity, acquired by United Artists for roughly $1 million, yielded less than $800,000. Tadpole, bought by Miramax for a reported $5 million in the season's most expensive purchase, made only $2.9 million. The number one grosser, Empire, a Latino drug drama that drew faint praise at its Park City premiere, is currently pushing toward $18 million in ticket sales.

Though the buying was less frenzied at Sundance 2003, the specialized studio divisions continued to pay up. InDigEnt, the IFC-funded digital production company that produced Tadpole, once again garnered the largest deal of the festival for Pieces of April, Peter Hedges's comic tearjerker about a New York screw-up (Katie Holmes) attempting to fix Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged suburban family. After several days of intense negotiations, United Artists paid a reported $3.5 million for the film (though industry insiders put the figure well beyond that). While shut out of the awards ceremony, Pieces of April will go down in Sundance history along with a litany of past years' headline-grabbing high-priced Park City acquisitions from Next Stop Wonderland to Happy, Texasto The Deep End.

Ironically, Pieces of April was green-lit at a $6 million budget for United Artists, but after UA's parent MGM nixed the project, Hedges took the movie to the DV company and produced it with the same cast for $250,000. Now under InDigEnt's business model, cast and crew will receive a share of the multimillion-dollar bounty.

This year's Grand Jury Prize winner, American Splendor, based on the life and work of comic artist Harvey Pekar, started off as a mere HBO TV movie, with producer Ted Hope forgoing a theatrical release in favor of steady financing and greater creative freedom. But reversing past policy, HBO recently decided to sell its movies to the theatrical market: With its esteemed award, American Splendor is now a hot commodity that may end up with Newmarket Films, the company behind HBO's first theatrical release (and Sundance 2002 hit) Real Women Have Curves.

Cable TV, video, and DVD prospects were probably also on the minds of Lions Gate buyers when they bet $1.5 million on The Cooler. With stars like Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, Joey Fatone, and Estella Warren, and a slick, if predictable, Las Vegas yarn sprinkled with sex and violence, the movie is ready-made for lucrative returns in the home entertainment market (where many indies recoup their initial outlay). In another early festival buy, Paramount Classics paid upwards of $2 million for United States of Leland, sure to generate press for its controversial story about a heavy-lidded affluent 16-year-old (Sundance vet Ryan Gosling) who kills a mentally retarded boy.

Fox Searchlight made one of the other major purchases of the festival for Catherine Hardwicke's teen-girls-gone-bad melodrama Thirteen. Produced with money from Universal Pictures-owned Working Title Films, Thirteen's reported $2 million sale to Fox appeared sealed after its world premiere, but a debate about the positioning of the company logos slightly delayed the pact. Hardwicke also took home Best Directing honors. The powerhouse 2003 jury—which included David O. Russell, Tilda Swinton, Forest Whitaker, Steve Buscemi, and critic Emanuel Levy—also bestowed Special Jury Prizes for "Emotional Truth" on another pair of tales about troubled young adults, David Gordon Green's Sony Classics release All the Real Girls and A. Dean Bell's What Alice Found.

If Pieces of April, Thirteen, and The Coolerwent into the festival marked as the most commercial prospects, Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent was Sundance 2003's surprise. An affecting trifle, featuring Peter Dinklage, Bobby Cannavale, and Patricia Clarkson (winner of a special acting prize for her roles in three competition films), the film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, the Audience Award, and a $1.5 million distribution contract with Miramax. John Sloss, who orchestrated the Pieces of April and Station Agentdeals, believes Disney subsidiary Miramax can still nurture art-house releases while pushing behemoths like Chicago and Gangs of New York. "If Harvey [Weinstein] understands it's a specialized film and doesn't try to sell it like a studio movie like he did with Tadpole," says Sloss, "then I think it's got a shot [with Miramax]."

Mark Urman of the boutique distributor ThinkFilm disagrees. "Once upon a time, a well-considered drama about a dwarf in New Jersey would have ended up with a company such as ours," he says of The Station Agentdeal. "But when a film like that is at the center of a bidding war and ends up going to Miramax, it's just an indication of how things are out of whack at Sundance." ThinkFilm, like every one of the non-conglomerate-affiliated distributors, left the 11 days of Sundance 2003 without a dramatic film to call their own.

Just as The Station Agentwas this year's sleeper, the festival also had its share of flameouts. Tipped as must-sees, Best Cinematography winner Quattro Noza, hyped as an experimental DV The Fast and the Furious, fell flat with buyers, along with the much-anticipated Michael Alig biopic Party Monster. However, plan on both finding theatrical homes as a result of their marketable selling points. Other films tapped for acquisition include the Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary Capturing the Friedmans, Keith Gordon's The Singing Detective, the new Gael García Bernal three-way Dot the I, Campbell Scott's Off the Map, Mark Rucker's Die Mommie Die(winner of a Special Jury Prize for Charles Busch's performance in drag), and Thomas Vinterberg's "millennium film" It's All About Love.

And for many Park City orphans, the Sundance Channel will launch the Sundance Film Series, a four-film distribution arrangement with Loews Theaters to begin this fall, styled after the successful Shooting Gallery Film Series. But all is not lost for those films still without the much-coveted Sundance buzz. "We've been burned before by the Sundance frenzy," says Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker. "In fact, we've had more success with films that we've revisited after the festival outside the context of sleep deprivation. And that's what we're going to do in the coming weeks."


Sundance coverage continues next week with Dennis Lim's and Rob Nelson's overviews of the fiction and documentary films.

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