“We’re the walking wounded,” says an exhausted Ruth Vitale, co-president of Paramount Classics. “But we’re thrilled,” adds partner David Dinerstein. Both executives just wound up a week of round-the-clock wheeling and dealing at the Sundance Film Festival, where indie-film business is big business and buying a movie means “staying up all night locked in a hotel room,” says Dinerstein.
Dollar for dollar, Sundance 2005 broke records—and broke them early. In first weekend mega-purchases, Miramax and Paramount dropped a whopping total of $23.5 million in Park City—flashy pacts meant in part as look-at-me signs to the industry at large. In a flourish typical of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the Miramax brothers shelled out $7.5 million for The Matador, a dark hit-man comedy starring Pierce Brosnan. And with a showy pre-Sundance buy of Aussie horror-thriller Wolf Creek, the Weinsteins appeared intent on making their presence known, despite being likely to leave their company behind soon. “We’re pretty confident the film is going to be one of the first [Harvey] releases under a new banner,” says Matador producer Sean Furst.
In a multi-picture deal with producer John Singleton reportedly priced at $16 million, Paramount Pictures acquired the pimp-and-‘ho crowd-pleaser Hustle & Flow. The pact confirmed rumors that Paramount’s new management wants to build a formidable classics division, one rivaling Fox Searchlight (distributor of last year’s Sundance hits Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State). “We’ve been given the mandate to compete on a more aggressive level,” says Dinerstein, who also helped orchestrate the reported $2 million purchase of Mad Hot Ballroom, a Slamdance documentary widely described as Spellbound meets Strictly Ballroom.
But numbers—like audience responses—can be deceiving at 6,900 feet above sea level. “There is a lot of disinformation being spread,” says Lions Gate’s Tom Ortenberg. “Some of it is spread by competitors, some by sales agents and talent agents trying to hype their movies, and some floated by the press when they’re throwing up balloons to see if they’re right.” Lions Gate’s acquisition of teen-revenge two-hander Hard Candy, for example, has been variously reported at $4 million, $2.25 million, and $2 million.
Whatever their prices, many of the week’s biggest deals were characterized by synergy. Learning from Fox Searchlight’s partnership with MTV on Napoleon Dynamite, Paramount used fellow Viacom subsidiaries MTV and Nickelodeon to beat out the competition for Hustle & Flow and Mad Hot Ballroom, respectively. “We were not the highest bidders,” says Dinerstein, “but our cross-promotional opportunities could not be matched by any other company.” Likewise, Warner Independent Pictures will partner with National Geographic to release The Emperor’s Journey, a sort of Winged Migration for Antarctic emperor penguins, and Lions Gate will jointly distribute Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man with the Discovery Channel. “An indie has to gain exposure at low costs,” says Tom Ortenberg. “We don’t have those corporate synergies, so reaching out to a partner like Discovery is important.”
If Napoleon Dynamite‘s $44 million box office gross fueled more than a dozen deals this year, 2004’s documentary mania positioned nonfiction on an equal playing field with narrative work. “Some of the best audience potential can be found with [the documentaries],” says Mark Urman, of ThinkFilm, which launched the quadriplegic rugby doc Murderball and purchased the raunchy stand-up comedy picture The Aristocrats. “They are among the most commercial films at the festival,” he contends. “I’d wager the box office for Murderball against Hustle & Flow any day of the week.”
“People seem to have a greater appreciation for the upside potential of docs,” agrees Ortenberg, whose company purchased David LaChapelle’s “krumping” chronicle Rize. “But Super Size Me is only the third documentary ever to gross over $10 million, so it’s still really hard.”