Condé Nast Portfolio.com, January 30, 2008
Your regular correspondent left Sundance early this year on other business, and thankfully Portfolio.com's Andrea Chalupa, whose summing-up is below, parachuted in to do crackerjack work. For myself, Sundance seemed both creatively and commercially to be a festival in transition--both the change and continuity are intelligently framed below and in producer Jonathan Dana's musings at Thompson On Hollywood--and this year, more than ever, a logistical quagmire. The increasingly crowded streets were worse than ever with the usual choice of slush soup or black ice, the restaurants packed and pained, the screening queues (and chances of late tickets) dismal, the cabs a gouge-fest. That said, two great hidey-holes on Main street offered succor--the early stages of a curiously mellow (for Main Street, if not for Seattle) Star Bar event staged for directors by the Seattle Film Comission in concert with Sub Pop, whose recruit Daniel Martin Moore played a stately and entrancing little set against all odds (room noise) before giving way to Kelley Stoltz, who'd barely begun when the power up and down Main Street went out. Candles and flashlights--what a respite from the streets of bouncers and ambush marketers.
Also, the annual Cinetic party, hosted by partners John Sloss, Rob Nathan and Bart Walker, lived up to what the maitre de at Robert Redford's restaurant Zoom admiringly said--"Every year at this party, everybody dances!" That would include Jeff Dowd, well known as the model for the Jeff Bridges character in The Big Lebowski, who's gradually preparing a sort of autobiography entitled The Dude Abides. Just his tales of the formative days of Sundance decades ago--one involving a circle of film devotees in a circle in nature with a whole lot of marijuana--would make a nice little documentary one year at the fest. He's seen above with ThinkFilm's Mark Urman when the Cinetic paty was going full bore. With that, I'll yield to Andrea for the heavy lifting:
In recent years, the Sundance Film Festival marketplace has been increasingly manic, says ThinkFilm's head of acquisitions, Randy Manis. "I was surprised with the slow pace of sales this year."
Manis was interviewed for a story for Portfolio.com anticipating this year's marketplace at Sundance, where he said he was bracing himself for another year of fierce bidding. But instead, ThinkFilms went home empty handed; Manis even left the fest early.
"It's really refreshing. The business was insane last year," he says. "[This year] we were able to enjoy the festival."
What happened? As Manis explains, sellers with their hedge-fund financed films expected the usual multi-million dollar deals, but that wasn't consistent with what the market wanted. A lot of great films did not pick up distribution, including the much-hyped Phoebe in Wonderland, starring Elle Fanning and Felicity Huffman.
And regardless of what some buyers are saying the slow sales had nothing to do with the quality of the line-up. Having been there, chatter on the street and shuttle stops praised unsold films like Anvil, Mama's Man, and The Linguists.
"I liked enough things there personally, some of them I think we'll consider," says Manis. "A lot of these films will still sell, but it'll take considerably longer than normal."
ThinkFilms isn't in active negotiations at the moment. But Warner Independent could soon make a kill. According to Variety, Warner is going after Man on Wire, the James Marsh documentary about French high wire artist Philippe Petit and his 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. This past weekend the film won the Grand Jury and the Audience Prize in the World Cinema category at the closing award ceremonies of Sundance.
I spoke with Warner Independent's President Polly Cohen about whether the company was making moves for Man on Wire, and she could not comment specifically on any deals.
"We're looking at everything that hasn't been picked up at the festival, we bought Snow Angels way after the festival had ended," says Cohen.
Snow Angels, a drama about lost love in a small town, opens nationwide March 7th. Warner premiered two other upcoming films at the festival--the thriller Funny Games and Towelhead, a coming of age story; their premiers are March 14 and August 15, respectively.
When asked about the slow buying market, Cohen says, "It's sort of like dating, they're great guys out there, but they don't all match where you're at."
"Every company has a different strategy," she adds. "Unlike the big studio movies, there are so many different ways to handle a film. It really is about the vision of the people who see the movie and how they're able to handle it and if that vision matches up with the filmmaker's."
Though this year's trickle of sales meant there weren't a lot of matches made in heaven, one sale registered big on the Richter with Focus Features paying $10 million for Hamlet 2. In the next couple months more sales will continue to trickle in.