At Sundance, Finally a Focus on the Films

The forecast was for doom and gloom, but most in the entertainment industry agreed that this year’s Sundance Film Festival offered a surprisingly sunny respite from the recession. Sure, movie sales came at a slower pace than usual, but the mood at the festival was bustling and upbeat, with the emphasis back where it belonged […]

Last Updated: November 20, 2009 @ 10:22 AM

The forecast was for doom and gloom, but most in the entertainment industry agreed that this year’s Sundance Film Festival offered a surprisingly sunny respite from the recession. Sure, movie sales came at a slower pace than usual, but the mood at the festival was bustling and upbeat, with the emphasis back where it belonged – on the independent films themselves. 

“Sometimes Sundance can feel like Vegas, with all the lights and distraction,” said Ben Weiss, an agent in the motion picture division at Paradigm. “But this year people were a little more focused on the filmmaking.”

Though it remains without distribution at the festival’s end, “Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire” was clearly the festival favorite, picking up the Audience and Grand Jury awards in the U.S. Dramatic competition in addition to a Special Jury Prize for Mo’Nique’s performance as a cruel mother to Precious Jones, her obese, illiterate daughter who struggles as she grows up in Harlem.

“I thought this was a very strong year for Sundance – it seemed busy, and the traffic was still terrible,” said James Schamus, CEO of Focus Features, which had the Spanish-language immigration tale “Sin Nombre” in competition. That film won a directing prize for Cary Joji Fukunaga as well as a cinematography prize. As to why Focus did not acquire any rights this year, Schamus had this to say: “I thought a lot of films were great, which is hard, because then people ask me, ‘well, why didn’t you buy anything?’ There just wasn’t that much room on our slate this year. We may still take an interest and we haven’t shut down those possibilities because there are some very good films out there.”

Many buyers projected an uneasy, cautious mood, but there were some big spenders. Anchor Bay Films’ nearly $4 million purchase of the Ashton Kutcher comedy “Spread” was the closest to a blockbuster sale the festival saw this year, after Focus Features spent $10 million at the 2008 fest on “Hamlet 2,” only to later watch it tank at the box office. Other big acquisitions included Sony Pictures Classics’ reported $3 million purchase of the British ‘60s love story “An Education” and the sale of Antoine Fuqua’s cop drama “Brooklyn’s Finest” to Senator for around the same price.

But as the 10-day festival came to a close on Sunday, buyers said they thought there were still deals to be made – perhaps raising total sales to a figure that would match or exceed the $15 million spent on rights at last year’s Sundance.

“This year is really no different than any other year, and there will probably be a lot more announcements in the coming week, said Arianna Bocco, the acquisitions buyer for the Independent Film Channel, which has picked up “Dead Snow” and “In the Loop” thus far. “I think that because of the economy, people are probably being more cautious in terms of what they’re going to buy and how much they’re going to pay for it,” Bocco said. 

In the end, many Park City visitors said their experience at Sundance had been one of the most positive in recent memory.

“You know what I think happened this year? I think Sundance got better,” said actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of Fox Searchlight’s “(500) Days of Summer.” “The last time I was here, there were almost two worlds going on … the world of the movies and then there was this other parasitic beast that latched on – the Hollywood world of material excess culture. That whole side of the story has shrunk a lot this time, and that’s very encouraging to me.”