Sundance: Sign on the dotted line

By By Sam Potter and By Sam Potter

By Sam Potter

If you weren’t aware, just landing a film in Sundance’s screening lineup doesn’t guarantee success.

Despite being touted as a showcase for independent filmmaking, Sundance’s main purpose is for filmmakers to shop their works to distributors. Although past film festivals have seen narrative works garner a large share of the buzz (“Napoleon Dynamite,” “Little Miss Sunshine”), the tides seem to have changed in favor of documentaries this year.

Many anticipated narrative films underwhelmed audiences this year, particularly the films with name actors. Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened?” entered the festival with huge buzz surrounding it, largely in part to Robert De Niro leading an all-star cast. But by the halfway point of the film, many were texting about its tepid pace and negating storyline. “The Great Buck Howard,” featuring performances from John Malkovich and Colin and Tom Hanks, was also met with a milquetoast response.

Other films screened for quite a few days before garnering any interest. Geoff Haley’s “The Last Word,” featuring the clout of Ray Romano, Winona Ryder and Wes Bentley, didn’t exactly incite a bidding war, but was ultimately picked up. Projects such as Amy Redford’s (Robert’s daughter) “The Guitar” screened with much anticipation, but no word as to whether it got picked up. The biggest sales of the festival went to the bawdy thespian comedy “Hamlet 2” ($10 million to FOCUS Features), the adaptation of Chuck Palaniuk’s “Choke” (Fox Serachlight, $5 million) and “Henry Poole is Here” starring Luke Wilson ($3.5 million to Overture).

Smaller films from first timers, as a whole, managed to win against the odds and outperform their bigger-name competitors. “Frozen River,” the well-deserved winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Drama, was picked up by Sony Picture Classics for $1 million. The Duplass’ Brothers’ indie-comedy “Baghead,” the Ben Kingsley coming-of-age vehicle “The Wackness” and the chilling German classroom drama “The Wave” were also purchased. The largely improvised “Ballast,” which won top honors for Dramatic Cinematography, scored a deal with Celluloid Dreams for its non-U.S. distribution.

However, this year films that generated the real heat were the documentaries, which were among the first to be sold. Maria Zenovich’s “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” was snatched up by The Weinstein Co., with domestic television rights purchased by HBO Films. Right behind it was Timothy-Greenfield Sander’s “The Black List: Volume One,” which contains interviews with the world’s twenty most influential living African-Americans. Both of these films have qualified for Oscar contention, and, based on their buzz, could easily find their way to a nod next year. “Up The Yangtze,” whose screenings were almost always sold out, was the first purchase of the entire festival, picked up by international distributor Zeitgeist. The soccer documentary “Kicking It,” narrated by Colin Farrell, was picked up for worldwide TV rights by ESPN.

The overall slow goings as to the acquisition of certain films may be attributed to a number of factors, namely the under-performance of movies which contain stars with drawing power, the lack of star power in the better-made smaller films and overzealous spending in the past.

“There did seem to be more caution this year, I guess, as opposed to prior years,” Overture Films CEO Chris McGurk said Wednesday. “There were some instances of buys that were made last year that with 20/20 hindsight, that amount of money shouldn’t be paid.”

While the Writers Guild continues to strike, distribution companies are considerably more cautious to assuage a film’s value. Without the security-blanket of working with guild writers and a production team to comb through a film’s flaws and tweak its marketability, distributors have to go more on a gut reaction. The films that do carry over into the Megaplexes, however, may have a surprisingly positive result, as seen with the recent surges in the popularity of smaller, independent films and documentaries. Either way, Sundance’s contribution to the cinematic echelon continues to be surprising and refreshingly unpredictable.

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