The Sundance Film Festival should to be a healthy one for acquisitions, but that doesn't mean the buyers will end up happy
This year's Sundance Film Festival will be the biggest buyer's market ever.
But will any of the movies picked up there become a breakout hit?
That's the question that hangs over Park City, Utah, as the indie film world converges on the resort for the festival, which kicks off with a quartet of opening-night films on Thursday.
Last year's festival was one of the best in memory for acquisitions — 40 films were scooped up — but for none of them broke through on the order of "Little Miss Sunshine." The Paul Rudd comedy "Our Idiot Brother" topped last year's entries with a $24.8 million gross.
Films like "Like Crazy," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," and "Win Win" drew favorable reviews and awards attention, but none are really in the position to receive Best Picture nominations the way recent Sundance entries "The Kids Are All Right," "Precious," "An Education" and "Winter's Bone" did a year after their debut at the festival.
Buyers are trekking to Park City this week to check out movies starring the likes of Joel Edgerton, Julie Delpy and Sean Penn, plus the usual plethora of documentaries. The independent film community is hoping for another strong edition of the most important American film festival, and the key showcase for independent film anywhere.
How much a buyer's market is this year's festival? For the first time, every film premiering there did not have a buyer when Sundance booked it. Nearly every one of them still remains completely up for grabs.
This year's lineup boast more than 117 feature-length films, 45 of them by first-time filmmakers. They were selected from more than 4,000 submissions.
It will kick off with a quartet of films: actor-turned-director Todd Louiso's "Hello, I Must Be Going" (right), featuring a buzzed-about performance from Melanie Lynskey; "Wish You Were Here," a Cambodian-set drama starring Joel Edgerton; "Searching for Sugar Man," a documentary about the obscure '70s rock 'n' roller Rodriguez; and Lauren Greenfield's doc "The Queen of Versailles," which stirred up controversy not because of the film but because of the Sundance press release announcing it.
The film details the construction of a 90,000-square-foot Florida mansion whose owner, David Siegel, sued Greenfield, her husband and the Sundance Institute over a description in the release that said his house had been foreclosed, which it had not. (TheWrap initially ran that description, but changed it when a Sundance rep contacted us to say that their initial wording was incorrect.)
Other competition films that have picked up attention include Behn Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," made with a cast of non-actors; Jonathan Kasdan's high-school drama "The First Time"; So Yong Kim's "For Ellen," with Paul Dano as a musician fighting for custody of his daughter; Ben Lewin's "The Surrogate," which stars John Hawkes as a man determined to lose his virginity even though he lives in an iron lung; and "Simon Killer," an Antonio Campos movie from the Borderline Films group that produced "Martha Marcy May Marlene."
The out-of-competition films showcase even bigger names: Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon in the financial thriller "Arbitrage," Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Stephen Frear's "Lay the Favorite," Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro (left) in Rodrigo Cortes' "Red Lights," and Chris Rock in actress-director Julie Delpy's "2 Days in New York," a follow-up to "2 Days in Paris."
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Spike Lee is also bringing "Red Hook Summer" to the festival, while Lee Toland Krieger's relationship comedy "Celeste and Jesse Forever" and Jamie Travis' phone-sex comedy "For a Good Time, Call … " have buyers sniffing around.
"Bachelorette" insists that it's not another "Bridesmaids," but the comedy with Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan does look at the female side of wedding rituals.
Typically, Sundance showcases a number of young breakout stars, with last year's "Sundance It Girls" including Elizabeth Olsen ("Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Silent House") and Felicity Jones ("Like Crazy"). Olsen is back this year with "Liberal Arts" and "Red Lights," while candidates for 2011 breakout status include Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Smashed" and Gina Rodriguez in "Filly Brown."
The documentary side is traditionally a Sundance strength: Six of the Academy's 15 shortlisted feature docs screened at last year's festival. Competitive entries include Rachel Grady's "Detropia," Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War," Eugene Jarecki's "The House I Live In." HBO Documentary Films has already bought U.S. broadcast rights to "Me at the Zoo," about video blogger Chris Crocker.
Non-competition docs include Stacy Peralta's skateboard chronicle "Bones Brigade: An Autobiography" (right), Rory Kennedy's look at her mother, "Ethel," and Joe Berlinger's "Under African Skies," which follows Paul Simon's return to South Africa 25 years after recording the "Graceland" album.
Whether or not he attends, Berlinger is also apt to be a presence when "West of Memphis" screens – because that documentary, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, looks at the case of the West Memphis Three, which was exhaustively chronicled by Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in the three "Paradise Lost" movies.
The big question: What will Berg and Jackson reveal that wasn't already covered by Berlinger and Sinofsky?
Then there's "Humpday" director and Sundance vet Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister," with Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass, and an anniversary screening of the iconic indie film "Reality Bites," and Paolo Sorrentino's "This Must Be the Place," with Sean Penn as an androgynous-looking rock star.
Add an extensive lineup of midnight films and experimental films and short films, and the buyers will have an enormous amount to choose from.
If past Sundance Film Festivals are any indication, a surprisingly large percentage of the entries will wind up with theatrical distribution.
But will any of them turn a profit? That's a question that won't be answered in Park City over the next two weeks – though it'll definitely be asked, over and over.
TheWrap will have full coverage of the festival in the Report From Sundance column.
(Photos courtesy of Sundance Film Festival. Egyptian Theatre by George Pimentel; "Red Lights" by Gustavo Lopez-Manas; "Bones Brigade" by Grant Britain)