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Sundance Festival

Distribution Deals on Brisk Pace

No breakout films have surfaced and few entries can be called commercial (weird might be better), but more sales are being made than in recent years.

January 19, 2002|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PARK CITY, Utah — This year's Sundance Film Festival is one of the hottest film markets in recent memory, with more than half a dozen movies picked up for distribution so far. Yet many people here are complaining that the festival, which wraps up this weekend, lacks the fireworks, the breakout movies, that have characterized the past couple of years.

"It absolutely is the most robust year in quite a while," says Jeff Dowd, a producer's representative who has a number of films here. "We went in somewhat concerned, but we're all seeing our films are going to sell."

Few of the films that have been sold can be called commercial. Many of the stories are downbeat, if not downright weird. The films are stubbornly un-formulaic. And yet here they are, guaranteed distribution.

What's even more mystifying is that this flies in the face of the general drag the economy has had on the festival. The venues, which are normally sold out, have had tickets available. Main Street and the restaurants are quiet. It might be assumed that the independent studios would be pulling back along with everybody else--but that wasn't the case at all.

Among the pickups:

* Finn Taylor's "Cherish," a film that is screening in competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is about a dippy computer nerd (Robin Tunney) who is accused of running over a cop while drunk. She's confined to house arrest while awaiting trial, and develops a relationship with an equally nerdy security expert (Tim Blake Nelson) assigned to make sure that the tracking device on her ankle works properly. Fine Line bought it for between $1 million and $2 million.

* Gary Winick's "Tadpole," another film in competition, is about a precocious prep-school boy (Aaron Standford) who has a crush on his stepmother (Sigourney Weaver), vows to steal her away from his self-obsessed father (John Ritter), and inadvertently falls into the arms of her 40-ish best friend (Bebe Neuwirth) while she's giving him a massage. Miramax bought it for around $5 million.

* Karen Moncrieff's "Blue Car," which is featured in American Spectrum--the place where films that are considered either too commercial or not cutting-edge enough for competition go--is about an aspiring teenage poet (Agnes Bruckner) who lives with her bitter mother (Margaret Colin) and her withdrawn little sister who likes to mutilate herself. She is befriended by her high school English teacher (David Strathairn) and ultimately betrayed by him. Miramax bought it for between $1 million and $2 million.

* Todd Louiso's "Love Liza," in competition, is about yet another computer nerd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose wife commits suicide. The entire film is devoted to his grief, which is only allayed when he sniffs gasoline from a rag and befriends a model airplane enthusiast. Sony Pictures Classics bought it for $2 million.

Among the other pickups: Miguel Arteta's "The Good Girl," bought by Fox Searchlight, $4 million; John Malkovich's "The Dancer Upstairs," also bought by Fox Searchlight, $2.5 million; and Gus Van Sant's "Jerry," bought by ThinkFilm, $1 million.

Last year at Sundance the independent studios picked up few films, perhaps in response to the excessive amounts spent on films in previous years that had no hope of making the money back. Indies were guilty of being swept up in the enthusiasm Sundance audiences displayed toward the films, forgetting that these people don't necessarily represent the movie-going public and that the festival itself is a hothouse, forcing films to bloom that would bloom nowhere else.

Dowd says that while the figures paid for films this year are relatively low, , the final outlay, factoring in prints and advertising and overhead, is still considerable. The indies may buy a movie for $1 million but end up spending $4 million or more on it. He thinks that these open wallets are in some sense related to Sept. 11, in that there is a hunger for films of substance.

But attorney John Shloss, who represents many independent films and filmmakers (he helped broker the deal for "Tadpole") takes a more pragmatic view.

"I think it's the slowdown in production in anticipation of the strike, which continued after 9/11," he says. "There are unique factors too. [Fine Line Pictures President] Mark Ordesky getting back into it after being tied up with 'Lord of the Rings.' You've got [Miramax co-Chairman] Harvey Weinstein rediscovering these films."

"They saw the critical and commercial success of last year's films," says Nancy Utley, president of marketing for Fox Searchlight--among the pickups last year were Miramax's "In the Bedroom"--adding that even if the films that were bought are uncommercial, they can make their money back if they perform well on the art-house circuit, in worldwide sales and on home video.

Anyway you slice it, if you're selling or buying or showing movies at the Sundance Film Festival, this has been a good year.

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