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As Chris Gorak, the first-time director of the Sundance competition film Right at Your Door, fields questions from an audience inside the Racquet Club Theater, United Talent Agency deal maker Rich Klubeck paces outside, talking animatedly on his cell phone about whether Gorak’s crass disaster B flick can play as wide as Open Water, Sundance 2004’s crass disaster B flick (which made over $30 million nationwide). Later that day, Lions Gate, the distributor of Open Water, pays somewhere between two and three million dollars to acquire Door. And this was the year that Sundance organizers promised a return to the festival’s more humble roots?
On the contrary, Sundance ’06 was the year of gross percentage points and the record-breaking deal; fewer pictures generated commercial heat, but the ones that did proved the festival’s industry profile has never been higher. “I think there might have been a little bit more of the dark dramas, where wrists are slit and tears are shed and a few less movie stars,” says Warner Independent Pictures’ Mark Gill, “but I think that’s a matter of only a few degrees.”
Surpassing previous high-priced pictures The Spitfire Grill (1996, $10 million), Happy, Texas (1999, $10.25 million), and last year’s Hustle & Flow ($9 million), Little Miss Sunshine, an ensemble comedy featuring Steve Carell, was acquired by Fox Searchlight for a reported $10.5 million, along with an unprecedented back-end cut. (To protect the innocent or fiscally irresponsible, all numbers are unconfirmed.) Produced by Marc Turtletaub, whose previous job was, fittingly, CEO and president of the Money Store, Little Miss Sunshine, by all accounts, delivered on its promise of commercial viability.
“I didn’t see Little Miss Sunshine, because I knew it was going to be a studio film,” says Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films. Instead, Sehring’s Rainbow Media movie unit beat out several studio divisions to scoop up Wordplay, Patrick Creadon’s profile of New York Times crossword puzzlemaster Will Shortz. IFC paid a hefty $1 million and pursued the film with the kind of paranoid intensity that festers at Sundance. “People live in fear here,” says Sehring. “If you’re not the one who closes a deal, someone else will come along and do it.”
Indeed, Sundance biz fever recalls the testosterone-heavy panic seen in Glengarry Glen Ross. “We finished at 4 a.m.,” says an exhausted Mark Gill, whose Warner Bros. division acquired U.S. and U.K. rights to Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep for $6 million. Gill likens the bleary-eyed deal making to Wall Street, “in more ways than we care to admit, I’m sure,” he says. “All the bankers I know have similar situations when they’re closing.”
In another of the fest’s biggest buys, Daniel Battsek, the new president of the Weinstein-less Miramax, pioneered his first 3 a.m. Sundance purchase, of Patrick Stettner’s Armistead Maupin thriller The Night Listener. “Is there some unsaid law that you have to sign these deals in the middle of the night?” he asks. Only for the very few movies that spawn bidding wars and newspaper headlines, of course.
“Five years ago, when companies like October Films were still in business, I think you’d see a lot more activity at the festival,” says IFC’s Sehring. “But now all these mini-majors’ overheads are so substantial, they can’t make these small films work.” Hence, the studio specialty divisions were focused on half a dozen potentially big solid bets, while smaller, unaffiliated companies are still in the process of picking up the riskier leftovers. So far, Samuel Goldwyn and Roadside Attractions jointly acquired Bob Goldthwait’s raunchy drama Stay, THINKFilm bought the standout Brooklyn portrait Half Nelson, and new distributor Bauer Martinez purchased Finn Taylor’s roundly disliked comedy The Darwin Awards.
That leaves over 100 Sundance entries still in limbo. One such film, Old Joy, a delicate feature directed by Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass), was heralded by a cadre of respected critics. But Old Joy played in the buyer-averse Frontier fringe section. “It’s somewhat frustrating for the filmmakers,” says Christopher Pizzo, the film’s sales agent. “They’re hearing all this stuff about deals and positive critical reaction, and they’re wondering, ‘Where’s our offer?’ “