Sundance Sales Started With a Bang in ‘Whiplash,’ But Never Scaled Lofty Heights

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Only 21 movies managed to secure domestic distribution, though dealmaking will continue over the next several weeks

After starting with a bang in opening night film “Whiplash,” the Sundance Film Festival ended with a whimper Sunday, as a mere 21 films managed to land domestic distribution, though dealmaking remains far from over as Berlin’s European Film Market approaches.

The dramatic competition title “Whiplash” got Sundance off to a hot start Jan. 16, though it seems the festival slid downhill from there in the eyes of both audiences and the jury, as the drummer drama ended up winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Apparently, the festival peaked early this year.

Sony Pictures Classics acquired “Whiplash” early in the festival before the upscale distributor pounced on two additional titles. The final sales tally at week’s end: A24, IFC, Lionsgate and Sony Pictures Classics left Park City with three new films apiece, while Fox Searchlight, Magnolia Pictures and Radius-TWC took home two each. The other three buyers were Focus Features, Well Go USA and Participant/Univision.

Also read: WaxWord: 5 Cold Truths From an Uninspiring Sundance

“Overall, there were a lot of things that caught our eye but certain films were more of a challenge for the marketplace than others. We knew it was going to be a sellers market,” Tom Quinn of the Weinstein Co.’s boutique label Radius-TWC, told TheWrap.

“Make no mistake about it, there were major acquisitions and sales. But we just weren’t going through the lineup and seeing a wide release,” added Quinn’s Radius-TWC partner Jason Janego, who liked a lot of the movies he saw at the festival. “People go in looking for that big title with Sundance elements but elevated, like a ‘Fruitvale’ or ‘Don Jon,’ but maybe that particular movie didn’t exist at this festival,” said Janego, who joined the critical consensus and singled out “Whiplash” as one of the films he most enjoyed.

Not only did Sundance fail to feature at least one film that everyone had to see before leaving Park City, those passing for must-see movies at this year’s festival sold in the $1 million to $3 million range, a far cry from last year, which saw “The Way Way Back” sell for nearly $10 million and “Don Jon” command a $25 million P&A commitment.

“The only one I was shocked sold for as little as it did is ‘Whiplash,” one veteran executive told TheWrap, while adding that some buyers believed the film’s reported $3 million sale to have been greatly exaggerated.

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Midway through the festival, word began circulating that Fox Searchlight was considering dropping between $9 million and $10 million on the Mark Ruffalo-Zoe Saldana dramedy “Infinitely Polar Bear,” though that rumor proved to be unfounded. As of this writing, Maya Forbes’ directorial debut has yet to secure distribution, though ICM Partners is weighing multiple offers.

“If that winds up selling for $5 million or more it’ll be really surprising for me, just because it’s taking a long time for a movie at that level. But pricing has to be relative to what the movies are — many are limited theatrical titles,” the executive said.

Another Sundance stalwart mentioned a common complaint heard at this year’s festival regarding its competitive scheduling, which can often diffuse buyer energy.

“They absolutely blew it with scheduling. They probably took more movies without distribution than in previous years and they put a lot of very similar indie movies head-to-head that were after the same kind of buyers. It split the distribution community. One movie would get seventy to eighty percent of buyers, and the other would get twenty to thirty percent and no senior people. The cost of that was that we couldn’t catch up and get key buyers to see the films,” explained the frequent festivalgoer, who wound up attending a lot of private screenings that could have been held prior to Sundance.

Also read: Sundance: Magnolia Closes Deal for Michael Fassbender Movie ‘Frank’

Asked to address this criticism, CAA’s Micah Green said that Zach Braff‘s “Wish I Was Here” was the only film to have a full representation of buyers, acknowledging that CAA was forced to hold a private screening of “Watchers of the Sky” because it screened so late in the festival.

“We had predicted that the festival would see a large volume of deals in the low seven-figure range, and that is how things played out. There is an appetite amongst distributors for more wide-release and breakout films, but this year’s Sundance program really didn’t include those,” said Green.

“It’s not a matter of quality — the critical response to most of the festival program was great. It is simply that the more overtly commercial films have been selling throughout the year in private screenings in Cannes, Venice, and Toronto. Look at ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ ‘Her,’ ‘The Butler,’ ‘A Haunted House,’ ‘Bad Words’ and ‘Can a Song Save Your Life?’ You can imagine each of those movies premiering at a Sundance to a buyer frenzy, but all of them found homes before January,” explained Green.

Meanwhile, one Sundance rite of passage that seems to be occurring with less frequency is the all-night bidding war. “There was a moment in time for that, but now you’re not locking yourself in a condo for 12 hours, and it’s so much better and more efficient and less stressful. Filmmakers romanticize that they’re being deprived of that but the business doesn’t need that. We’re doing the same deals with the same companies,” acknowledged one executive.

“We’re back to the way of doing advance-driven deals. There was no late-night negotiating [for us] this year, so as far as I’m concerned, that’s a success, but we work within the industry we’re in,” echoed Quinn.

With no breakout wide release at the festival and several 2013 holdovers on its upcoming release schedule such as “Grace of Monaco” and “Snowpiercer,” the Weinstein Co. remained relatively quiet this year. Instead, TWC deferred the spotlight to boutique label Radius-TWC, which purchased “The One I Love” and the obesity documentary “Fed Up.” The company eyed several additional titles and may have bought more movies if its own slate wasn’t so well-stocked.

Also read: Sundance Video: Wrap Industry Panel Tells Filmmakers to Be Personal, Have a Hook and a Plan

With TWC content to sit on the Sundance sidelines, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and especially A24 were the most aggressive buyers. TheWrap hears Millennium Entertainment, Samuel Goldwyn Films and Cinedigm have made offers on several Sundance titles, while Sony Classics and Fox Searchlight may still be searching for smart, post-festival deals.

Many Sundance deals are still percolating, and it may be another two weeks before some agencies sell out their sales slates prior to the European Film Market in Berlin.

One high-profile, well-reviewed film that has yet to announce a sale is Adam Wingard’s genre movie “The Guest,” which has been in play since its first screening, with CAA fielding offers between $1 million and $2 million.

Quinn, who knows a good midnight movie when he sees one, believes “The Guest” has the potential to change the trajectory of “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens‘ movie career, but first it’ll need to find a passionate distributor willing to welcome the genre film with open arms. That decision should be made shortly.

On the agency side, WME Global led the way with seven deals to date including a shared sale on “Life After Beth” with CAA, which has officially sold one-third of its 12 films as of this writing. UTA has sold three of its 11 titles, including shared sales on “The Skeleton Twins” with ICM Partners, and “Laggies” with CAA. Paradigm also added a notch to its sales belt when Lionsgate caught its “Cooties.”