By Ray Greene
The big news at Sundance this year wasn't the movies, though they were generally solid, usually interesting and sometimes terrific. The news was the red hot market which snatched up more than 20 movies and put to rest (for now) the half-baked Hollywood "truism" that indie film is dead.
Two years ago, Sundance was hit by a perfect storm of financial and situational problems. The poorly run studio "specialty" arms like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent (there's an oxymoron) were gone. Miramax, the standard-bearer for the overheated Sundance bidding wars of yore, was a shell company focused on overseeing its library of aging arthouse glories. Then came the financial collapse. Many of the festival's sponsors pulled out at the last minute, as did the news outlets who usually jam Park City's streets when their travel budgets were slashed. Sundance 2009 was a ghost town. The movies were rotten, the streets were clear, the screenings were half full. The future looked dire and rumor had it the festival lost serious money.
Cut to the present. By 2011, Sundance changed programming directors, reconnected with its original "films first" mission and transformed itself into a stronger, leaner and more accessible event. (And they're selling more movies, too.) The press was back, general attendance way up and the new contours of a healthy and reconfigured indie distribution scene carved their names in the snow. Some highlights:
• Fox Searchlight—the smartest and most successful of the studio "specialty" arms—dominates the festival the way Miramax used to by snagging a range of titles representing almost an entire slate. Included were the young adult romantic comedy Homework; the brilliant lo-fi science fiction film Another Earth; remake rights to the documentary The Bengali Detective; and Martha Marcy May Marlene, a drama about a young girl escaping a religious cult. Total tab: over $11 million.
• The reinvigorated Weinstein Group, riding high off The King's Speech, made itself felt by spending $6 million for the Paul Rudd comedy My Idiot Brother and another $8 million on the Tobey Maguire star vehicle The Details.
• Magnolia (in partnership with Participant) snagged Page One, a September Issue-style documentary about the New York Times, plus threw down a high six-figure deal for I Melt With You, a male menopause drama starring Jeremy Piven and Rob Lowe
• Roadside Attractions, which celebrated major Oscar nominations for last year's Sundance acquisition Winter's Bone in the midst of the festival, was a more muted presence, teaming with Lionsgate to snatch up the star-filled but mediocre high finance drama Margin Call for $2 million, and with HBO for Project NIM, a popular documentary about a chimp who learned sign language.
In terms of distribution purchase prices, what could be called "the new sanity" reigned. Gone were the overheated bidding wars that used to jack up buys for movies like The Castle and The Spitfire Grill, which in 1996 broke a Sundance sticker price record with $10 million. Paramount locked in the distribution rights for the festival hit Like Crazy early and cheaply; based on the passionate reactions of some attendees, the $4 million cost for the film about a pair of young lovers was a steal.
Even the Weinsteins—notorious for shopping at Sundance like rich teens at a mall—seemed wiser and more chastened, though as of this writing they still topped the festival as the highest bidder, especially when you add in the $10 million minimum P and A guarantee they vouched for to win The Details. This split purchase model demonstrates another notable trend: for some of the hotter Sundance titles, the buying price is no longer enough. Having watched recent niche films get dumped on the market with little fanfare (or imagination), producers and filmmakers are holding out for commitments that guarantee a real effort from distribution to boost exhibition. But compared to the $10 million up front Focus Features spent on Hamlet 2 a few years back, the 2011 Weinsteins still seem like the soul of restraint.
Bottom line: if this bellwether indie movie event is any indicator of future trends, it seems like executives who've been watching their blockbusters dwindle in the market place are remember the enormous upside potential of a good indie film. Credit the sea change to the enormous success of several serious-minded specialty titles released late last year (True Grit, Black Swan, The Fighter) and to the Cinderella saga of Winter's Bone, with its multiple major Oscar noms—and let's hope it's a sign of things to come. Why does it matter? Because of each of the four films named above, their director-be it the Coens, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell or Debra Granik—was a Sundance discovery. More than thirty years on, the importance of Sundance cannot be overestimated: it's the farm team for the best in American filmmaking.
LIST OF SUNDANCE 2011 PURCHASES:
Another Earth, directed by Mike Cahill (Fox Searchlight)
Buck, directed by Cindy Meehl (Sundance Selects)
Circumstance, directed by Maryam Keshavarz (Participant Media)
The Details, directed by Jacob Aaron Estes (The Weinstein Company)
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, directed by Morgan Spurlock (Sony Pictures Classics)
The Guard, directed by John Michael McDonagh (Sony Pictures Classics)
I Melt With You, directed by Mark Pellington (Magnolia)
The Last Mountain, directed by Bill Haney (Dada Films)
The Ledge, directed by Matthew Chapman (IFC FIlms)
Life in a Day, directed by Kevin Macdonald (National Geographic)
Like Crazy, directed by Drake Doremus (Paramount)
Homework, directed by Gavin Wiesen (Fox Searchlight)
Margin Call, directed by J.C. Chandor (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin (Fox Searchlight)
My Idiot Brother, directed by Jesse Peretz (The Weinstein Company)
Page One: A Year in the Life of The New York Times, directed by Andrew Rossi (Magnolia and Participant)
Pariah, directed by Dee Rees (Focus Features)
Perfect Sense, directed by David Mackenzie (IFC Films)
Project NIM, directed by James Marsh (Roadside Attractions)
Salvation Boulevard, directed by George Ratliff (IFC and Sony)
Silent House, directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (Liddell Entertainment)
Grand Jury Prize: Like Crazy
World cinema dramatic grand jury prize: Happy, Happy
World cinema dramatic directing award: Paddy Considine for Tyrannosaur
World cinema dramatic screenwriting award: Erez Kav-El for Restoration
World cinematography award: Hell and Back Again director Danfung Dennis
Grand Jury prize for world cinema documentary: Hell and Back Again
World editing award: Goran Hugo Olsson and Hanna Lejonqvist for The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
World Cinema Directing Award: James Marsh for Project Nim.
Grand Jury prize for world cinema documentary: Position Among the Stars directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich
Alfred P. Sloan award: Another Earth directed by Mike Cahill.