The New Normal at Sundance -– Strong Films, Cautious But Steady Buying

The huckster veneer is missing, replaced by an awareness of a challenged economy and the need to find the right match when it comes to marketing

The Sundance action got underway over the weekend with numerous films sold or about to be sold, and indie buyers impressed by a crop of what they called intelligent and thoughtful films.

It seems that the independent film world has finally gotten used to the new normal of the challenged marketplace, and are responding in kind.

“There’s a sense of seriousness about the movies this year and in the meetings that we're having with agents and filmmakers,” said Michael Barker, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures Classics, in an interview with TheWrap.

He added: “There's a loss of the huckster veneer that we've come to expect from this place. The feeling among us and the filmmakers and sellers this year is that we're all in this together. I see a lot less of the vestiges of the cutthroat business that used to be.”

Also read: Sundance Deals: CBS Buys ‘The Words,’ ‘Tupelo 77' Gets a Director

Sellers seemed to agree. Buyers were aggressively circling the hot movie of the moment, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a trippy, original take on environmental apocalypse set in something akin to the levees of New Orleans.

But those involved in the film said the focus was on finding the right distributor for an unusual project.

“This has elements of an auction, but we’re trying to create careful listening,” said one person involved in the sale who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Buyers are saying: ‘Let’s take a chance.’”

That film, to be sure, will be a tricky sell at the theater — it features a pint-sized New Orleans girl and prehistoric beasts.

Among the other movies that were on the block or sold:

>>“The Words,” a drama starring starring Brad Cooper, Zoe Saldana and Jeremy Irons, sold to CBS Films for $2 million with a $1.5 million commitment in prints and advertising, according to a knowledgeable individual.

>>“Arbitrage,” the New York drama set in the high society and Wall Street Finance and starring Richard Gere, was poised to sell within the next day or so.

>>“Celeste and Jesse Forever” had four offers by late Sunday, according to a knowledgeable insider. The film stars Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg as two friends who met in high school, married young – and divorce.

>>”Black Rock,” a thriller about three friends who reunite for a girls’ weekend getaway on a remote island that goes horribly awry, stars Katie Aselton alongside Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth. It sold to Mickey Liddell’s LD Entertainment.

There was strong, positive response to “Liberal Arts,” a charming story set in the world of higher education by writer-director-star Josh Radnor. The movie, which won loud cheers and applause at the Eccles Theater on Sunday afternoon, also stars last year’s Sundance “It Girl” Elizabeth Olsen and Richard Jenkins.

Several documentaries were sold, including the audience favorite “Searching for Sugar Man” and the real estate doc “Queen of Versailles.”

Read also: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ Rips Through Sundance

“There been some commercial films, and some that are more challenging,” said Eric d’Arbeloff, co-chief of Roadside Attractions, in an interview with TheWrap. “But you can’t forget that the ones that are the least commercial are sometimes the ones that have the most potential for us.”

A hangover remains from distributors who overpaid last year. Prices ratcheted as high as $6 million then, in many cases for films that brought little return.

“The marketplace is smart,” said Jay Cohen, who runs Gersh’s independent film department. “People are not going to do what they did last year, spend a lot of money for movies that are not commercial.”

Most important to sellers, he said, is the capital commitment to marketing. “That is the key to everything,” he said.

Meanwhile, a shadow remained over the festival at the news that Bingham Ray, an independent film veteran and close friend of many at the festival, had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital.

People were shaken at the news, and concern over his condition rippled through many conversations.
(Steve Pond contributed to this report)