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Sundance After #MeToo: Indie Buyers and Sellers Step Up Vetting of Filmmakers, Stars

Buyers will be ”more careful than ever,“ insider says of upcoming festival

Hollywood has been enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for creatives and executives accused of sexual misconduct, the effects of which may impact hopeful artists and agents headed to this week’s Sundance Film Festival.

As the industry confronts horrible accounts of assault and harassment, the shunning of the accused has resulted in collateral damage for the content they produce. The landscape is so tense that many distributors plan to vet filmmakers and stars before they agree to buy their movies, numerous insiders told TheWrap.

“Everyone is being careful about who they are in business with, how it reflects on their business, and who is going to be distributing their movie on every level,” one top agent with multiple projects for sale at Sundance this year told TheWrap. This individual added that all parties will be “using every precaution to protect their downside.”

“The vetting process will be better,” Keith Kjarval, producer of Michael Shannon’s new Sundance drama “What They Had,” told TheWrap. “The onus has to be on producers to the degree that they can vet and get creative afterwards on what they can do to remedy the problem.”

“I love what Ridley Scott did,” Kjarval added, referring to Scott’s replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the “All the Money in the World.”

None of the individuals TheWrap contacted would speak about specific steps that sales agents or buyers would be taking to safeguard against the risk of a #MeToo disclosure — like background checks, morality clauses or other contract language attached to deals. But every one of them said a new caution is widespread in the industry.

“What everyone will be looking at more closely is the price tags and assessing risk,” one major distribution executive told TheWrap. “There have been quite a few companies who haven gotten burned.”

Losses from recent scandals have been considerable. In September, distributor The Orchard bought Louis C.K.’s comedy “I Love You, Daddy” for $5 million out of the Toronto International Film Festival. The purchase came even after Roseanne Barr publicly said she’d heard many stories of inappropriate behavior exhibited by C.K. with fellow female comics.

But after the New York Times reported that five women accused the star of sexual misconduct, and C.K. admitted to the accusations, C.K. announced he would his movie back from The Orchard. (The comedian was also dropped from an overall deal at cable network FX, a planned animated series from TBS and the voice cast of “The Secret Life of Pets 2.”)

C.K. is part of a very small sect of entertainers who can afford to write a $5 million check (one dealmaker was doubtful he received the entire fee up front, but likely got a significant amount. The Orchard and a lawyer for C.K. did not return requests for comment on the matter). It would be a loss any other art-house studio would have had to absorb with a lesser-known filmmaker.

Deep-pocketed streaming giants can afford to take a financial hit, as Amazon Studios did with Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel.” The Kate Winslet drama earned a paltry $1.3 million in limited release in December after the studio and the cast were criticized for working with the director, who has been accused of sexually abusing his daughter Dylan Farrow (charges that he has consistently denied).

Amazon even canceled the film’s red carpet premiere to avoid discussing the matter — one that played out against their own internal sexual harassment ordeal that resulted in the resignation of former studio president Roy Price.

Also last month, YouTube Red scrapped a $3.5 million deal for Morgan Spurlock’s sequel to his game-changing documentary “Super Size Me” after the director tweeted about an experience where he felt he had engaged in fully consensual sex and his partner hadn’t. He also admitted to paying a settlement to a woman who had accused him of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Spurlock deal was supposed to be a litmus test for the fledgling YouTube Red: The company provided six months of exclusivity to stream the film, then was set to split all revenue from other platform releases 50-50 with Spurlock. It was never clarified who was paid, or what monies might have been returned, in the pricey transaction.

The vetting of festival filmmakers was supposed to improve after the “The Birth of a Nation” fiasco two years ago. Fox Searchlight paid a massive $17.5 million for star-director-cowriter Nate Parker’s period drama — only to see box office get torpedoed after a rape charge from his college days, of which Parker was acquitted in court, resurfaced prior to the movie’s release and planned awards campaign.

But the fear of a new round of sexual misconduct accusations isn’t the only issue roiling the indie acquisition community as it heads to Park City for the festival. “There’s a ton of speculation about what is going on with all the buyers, and not just because of the harassment issue,” another top film broker said.

“We don’t have the Weinstein Company. There’s a whole question about Fox Searchlight now that it’s [soon to be] owned by Disney, and the changing of the guard at Amazon,” the individual said.

Still, Sundance veterans are quick to put this year’s challenges into perspective. “If you look closely at the history of Sundance, the same story always emerges,” the insider said. “There are a million challenges, but then you get that special movie.”

Beatrice Verhoeven contributed to this report. 

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