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Stealing Peeks at Sundance

Facing filmmakers eager for a festival bidding frenzy, buyers go to great lengths for an advance look, including lies and purloined tapes.

January 16, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

The offers range from cash bribes to pledges of eternal friendship. Impostors will slip past security, and talent agents will betray their own colleagues. All this for a seat at the Academy Awards? Dinner with Cameron Diaz? No, this Hollywood hustle is aimed at an even more elusive target: an early peek at a Sundance Film Festival movie.

The nation's most important film festival officially begins tonight, but the real Sundance competition opened a month ago. That's when the festival's lineup of 129 feature films was announced, launching a frenzy of cinematic espionage that rivals a John le Carre novel -- or, in some cases, "Get Smart."

The Sundance festival is American independent film's star-studded answer to a Christie's auction. Hundreds of Hollywood executives pour into Park City, Utah, in search of the next "Blair Witch Project," the low-budget thriller that sold in 1999 for less than $1 million but grossed more than $142 million in U.S. theaters.

But unlike antiques bidders who get a cocktail-and-canape preview of the goods, Sundance shoppers enjoy no early grazing. They are thrown into a screening room packed with their top competitors. By the time the final credits roll two hours later, they must not only make a decision about whether they want to buy the film to distribute it in theaters but also conclude how many millions they want to offer. Deliberate an hour too long, and another buyer swoops in and grabs the movie.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 431 words Type of Material: Correction
Film story -- A Column One article Thursday said that art-house films' share of the box office had increased by 3% from 2001. Such films accounted for 7% of last year's box office, compared to 4% in 2001 -- actually a 75% increase.

Given such stakes and Hollywood's kill-or-be-killed ethics, it's no surprise that buyers try to gain any advantage possible. One acquisitions executive says he has paid his staffers as much as $500 for every purloined cassette they delivered.

The week before "The Good Girl" premiered at last January's festival, director Miguel Arteta held a private showing for co-star Jake Gyllenhaal. Just as the lights dimmed in the small Beverly Hills screening room, a man slipped into the theater, trying to look like he belonged.

"Who are you?" one of the film's producers immediately inquired. "I'm a good friend of Matthew Greenfield," the man replied. "And he personally invited me." Only problem: The producer asking the questions was Matthew Greenfield, and he had never met the uninvited guest. "The guy just ran out of the theater," Arteta says. "But you can't fault him for trying."

Arteta's successful efforts to keep his film under wraps helped generate heavy interest for his dark romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston. After a frenzied first Sundance screening, "The Good Girl" sold to Fox Searchlight for $4 million. It turned into one of last year's top art-house hits, grossing more than $14 million in North American theaters.

The secrecy is understandable. Allow your film to circulate before the festival begins, and it's like giving a costly birthday present without gift wrap: There's no eye-popping wonder when it's unveiled.

"Sundance is all about urgency," says producer-attorney John Sloss, who is selling eight Sundance films this year. He advises his filmmaker clients to protect their movies as if their livelihoods depended on it -- which they do. "Why not make the biggest impact you can?"

Finagling a sneak Sundance preview has taken on new importance as art-house films surge in popularity -- such films accounted for 7% of last year's box office, a 3% increase from 2001.

"It's almost to the point where acquisitions people will say, 'You know, if you show me this movie first, you can have my wife for the weekend,' " says Michael Pierce, one of the producers of "The Cooler," a Las Vegas romance starring William H. Macy that has some of the festival's best advance buzz.

In this year's Sundance lineup, "The Cooler" is but one of more than 20 movies about which buyers are trying to gather intelligence. But in a business as anti-egalitarian as Hollywood, the Sundance market follows remarkably impartial rules: Distributors as major as Miramax Films (Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York") and as minor as Strand Releasing (Argentina's "Smokers Only") both get to see a movie's world premiere at the same time, in the same place.

Unless, of course, their acquisitions executives have somehow seized a bootleg videocassette beforehand.

"Obviously, there is an advantage to seeing a movie early," says Patrick Gunn, Artisan Entertainment's executive vice president. For the buyers, an early look may eliminate a movie from consideration or double its importance. A sneak peek is especially helpful when the festival holds concurrent screenings of high-priority movies, which is true at least five times in this year's schedule.

"Every night, there are two to three screenings that you have to be on top of. It's hard to cover everything," says Amy Kaufman, senior vice president of acquisitions for Focus Features. Both Gunn and Kaufman say they haven't yet seen any movies on cassette this year.

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