PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - As indie moviemakers flock to the Rockies for the Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday, an abundance of available films and potential buyers is combining with Hollywood’s labor unrest to fuel talk of the most robust Sundance market in years.
The memory of pricey and poorly performing buys from last year, such as the Weinstein Co’s $4 million purchase of $36,000-grosser “Grace is Gone,” could still slow the train. But when the frenzy known as Sundance Fever takes over -- with its primary symptom of temporary amnesia -- memories fade quickly.
Acquisition executives will be keeping themselves busy with the sheer volume of films. New 3 p.m. slots have been added to the traditional 6 and 9 p.m. Premieres screenings, increasing the overall number of selections in the category from 17 last year to 25.
Three of Friday’s films already are attracting strong interest from distributors: “Sunshine Cleaning,” a drama from “Little Miss Sunshine” producer Big Beach starring Emily Blunt and Amy Adams; the Ben Kingsley/Mary-Kate Olsen stoner film “The Wackness”; and actor-director Michael Keaton’s romantic fable “The Merry Gentleman.”
It’s just the start of a schedule front-loaded with available titles. The weekend also will see such dramas as Paul Schneider’s “Pretty Bird”; the Elle Fanning starrer “Phoebe in Wonderland”; Mark Pellington’s “Henry Poole Is Here”; and the coming-of-age tale “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” one of three films from “Sideways” producer Michael London’s Groundswell Prods. (Miramax’s “Smart People” and Overture’s “The Visitor” are the others).
Foreign films usually aren’t big sellers -- last year’s $4 million Searchlight/Weinstein Co. buy of the March 19 release “Under the Same Moon” (“La Misma Luna”) aside -- but in the coming days, the Danish identity-swap thriller “Just Another Love Story,” the Russian missing-woman saga “Mermaid” and the Mexican sci-fi tale “Sleep Dealer” are titles that insiders say deliver the goods.
Documentaries, meanwhile, will try to overcome market skepticism this weekend when Nanette Burstein’s study in adolescence “American Teen,” Stacy Peralta’s gang film “Made in America,” the slavery documentary “Tales of the Trade” and Chris Waitt’s first-person “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures” debut in Park City.
Saturday afternoon also will see one of the most commercial and expensive movies ever to bow at the fest: director barry Levinson’s $30 million-plus “What Just Happened?” a Hollywood comedy-drama starring Robert De Niro and Bruce Willis.
The Tom Hanks-John Malkovich vehicle “The Great Buck Howard” gets its premiere Friday in Salt Lake City before traveling to Park City, with sources saying the movie already has screened for some studio buyers.
Next week feels far away to many buyers, but distributors already are beginning to eye Plum Pictures’ intergenerational dramedy “Diminished Capacity” and “Hamlet 2,” a comedy-musical starring Steve Coogan. (Comedy appears to be a highly regarded category, especially after a glut of war films and dour dramas at the boxoffice this fall.)
Of course, buzz has a way of fading fast if a much-touted movie doesn’t screen well, and it can build just as quickly for movies many hadn’t been tracking. Few were hyping “Once” or “Waitress” entering Sundance last year, and everyone was talking about “Joshua.” Fox Searchlight bought all three; the first two soared, the third bombed.
On the buying side, a complicated set of factors has led to the optimism and kept at bay the possibility that last year’s failures would make buyers gun-shy.
Specialty divisions flush with cash, studios seeking to fill holes created by the strike and the creation of new distribution labels including Overture Films and Summit Entertainment all have set tongues wagging about faster buys, frenzied bids and higher prices.
Last year, despite the roughly $50 million in sales, such big specialty players as Picturehouse, Focus and Miramax refrained from writing checks. This year, their presence will be one of several important factors shaping the market.
Miramax Films president Daniel Battsek hopes to pick up one or two films this year. But he warned, “It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where if a title gets hot, it will get white hot.”
Perhaps the biggest wild card is the Weinstein Co. With “Grace Is Gone,” “Dedication” and “Under the Same Moon” (“Under the Same Moon”), the brothers Weinstein made a series of pricey buys and co-buys last year. How much they “get a taste of the festival game,” as Harvey Weinstein said in 2007, will go a long way toward shaping how it’s played.
Sony Pictures Classics’ historically wary co-president Tom Bernard reiterated his colorful metaphor, which says selling is set up “like speed dating -- only at the end of the night you get married.”