What’s the Deal at Sundance? Market Gains Steam With More Buyers

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Steve Carell films create a few major deals, but other movies are getting spread around for smaller fees

Movies starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Steve Carell fetched millions this year at the Sundance Film Festival as sellers adjust to a market that is more diffuse than in years past but is also steadily gaining steam.

Major distributors like Relativity and Paramount surprised many by acquiring or bidding on films, but the biggest acquisitions so far have been for movies with A-list stars in the cast. Fox Searchlight paid $9.5 million for “They Way, Way Back,” which features Carell and Toni Collette. Relativity paid $4 million and promised $25 million more in marketing for “Don Jon’s Addiction,” which stars Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore.

Acquisitions picked up this week after a sleepy weekend, with a half-dozen films closing deals and Sony Pictures Classics closed a deal late Tuesday night for "Kill Your Darlings," starring Daniel Radcliffe as poet Allen Ginsberg.

This year has mirrored the trend of the recent past, with deal-making more cautious and less impulsive, demonstrating that Sundance movies now attract all kinds of buyers, not only theatrical distributors.

“The last couple years, deals have been closing on Sunday and Monday instead of right away,” David Glasser, chief operating officer of the Weinstein Company, told TheWrap. “We sit with the film, run the models and see how far we’re willing to go.”

Halfway into the festival, no film has become the talk of the town, as "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "The Surrogate" were last year. Nor has any company taken the market by storm.

The Weinstein Company often fills that role, as in 2011 when it paid about $13 million for “Our Idiot Brother” and "The Details." And at Toronto in 2012, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions took “Thanks for Sharing,” “Imogene” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”

At Sundance this year, Weinstein took “Fruitvale,” and Roadside remains on the sidelines. Newer distributors, such as The Weinstein Company’s multi-platform label RADiUS and A24 took popular titles “Concussion,” "Lovelace" and “The Spectacular Now.” Exclusive Releasing acquired the divisive "Two Mothers," its first title since its September launch.

“It’s a phenomenon of films finding the right distribution rather than just going up for auction,” said John Sloss, founder of Cinetic Media and a veteran seller. “Do I miss the days when $4 million deals were the norm? It made my deals easier. But if you have to wait, you collect on the back end.”

Sloss’ slate typifies the new market. His “Toy’s House,” sold late Tuesday to CBS Films. Other titles, such as “Before Midnight” and “Blue Caprice,” have received warm receptions but are still up for sale. A large number of buyers are in pursuit, reflecting an infusion of new companies into the marketplace.

Sloss dubbed the "Don Jon" and "Way, Way Back" deals "an anomaly," but Glasser pointed to Sony's $4 million acquisition of "Austenland" and his own "Fruitvale" deal as signs of a strong year.

“There’s only so much any of us can take on,” Glasser said. “You pick those one or two movies you really go after and this year it ended up being spread among all of us. It's very interesting how the VOD market, especially our division, has come into play.”

RADiUS is one of several companies that offers new-release options to filmmakers, promising that video on demand and digital sales can be as lucrative as a theatrical release or big upfront money.

“We have to look as much at ancillary revenue streams and back end money as the advance,” Sloss said. “It feels like there’s a lot more thoughtfulness from sellers and buyers.”

Documentaries are the one category of film that are doing brisk business, from the killer whale documentary “Blackfish” to the immigrant tale “Who is Dayani Cristal?”

With the festival halfway over, the question is when the second flurry of deals for narrative films will begin. Lynn Shelton's "Touchy Feely," horror anthology "S-VHS" and Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight" are among the many titles expected to go soon. If the market so far has been any indication, expect multiple bidders and smaller advances – but plenty of deals.