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Movies | SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

The new realists

Bidders aren't trusting the audience reactions.

January 24, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

PARK CITY, Utah — Altitude sickness, skiing accidents and red wine hangovers aren't the Sundance Film Festival's worst health risks. More detrimental is festival fever, a potentially crippling ailment that causes otherwise stable Hollywood deal makers to grow disoriented while shopping for new movies.

Unlike past Sundance festivals, where vaults of money have traded hands at a frantic pace in the opening days, only a handful of deals were struck in this festival's first week, and none for more than $2 million.

The culprit this year is not so much the movies -- considered as good as those in any past lineup -- but rather their public screenings. In a twist of logic, the better a Sundance film has played in front of a packed theater, the more nervous its prospective buyers have grown.

"It's just bizarre the way people are buying movies," says William Morris agent Cassian Elwes, who, unlike other sellers this year, sold three Sundance movies in short order. "The buyers are not paying attention to how the audience is reacting. They are paying attention to their competitors and their cell phones."

There's a simple explanation for this phenomenon, and it's called "Tadpole." At last year's festival, the low-budget comedy about a young boy's affair with his stepmother's girlfriend rocked Sundance audiences, generating roaring laughter, sustained ovations and terrific word-of-mouth along Park City's crowded streets. It became the festival's hottest ticket, and the strong reception prompted a fierce (and nearly violent) bidding war, with Miramax purchasing it for a steep $5 million.

But when "Tadpole" was released in theaters, it crashed faster than Enron, grossing only $2.8 million.

The movie may have failed for several reasons, including misguided marketing, a subject that some found distasteful, and the film's unpolished look. Whatever the real reason, though, its costly collapse served as a warning signal: Sundance screenings are not to be trusted.

Not that Sundance film buyers haven't been cautioned before. In the past years, any number of movies stormed Sundance, sold for tons of money but turned in "Pluto Nash" business at the multiplex. The list of losers includes "The Castle," "Slam," "Happy, Texas" and "Girlfight." When Fox Searchlight was finalizing its bid this year for the disturbing drama "thirteen," the company intentionally tried to distance itself from the film's successful Sundance screening. Only until Fox Searchlight was confident that the film could also appeal to mainstream audiences did it offer $1.99 million for "thirteen's" distribution rights.

"The biggest mistake you can make up here," says Tom Ortenberg of Lions Gate Films, "is to fall in love with a movie because the audience does."

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The disconnect between audience and buyer

At this year's festival, audiences went wild for "Pieces of April" and "The Station Agent," yet neither movie sold in the three days after its first screening. (Miramax bought "The Station Agent" on Tuesday night for $1.5 million, but as of Thursday morning no deal had been announced for "Pieces of April.") "That never would have happened in the past," says ThinkFilm's Jeff Sackman. "Movies that popular would have sold in a day."

"Pieces of April" stars Katie Holmes in a comedy of a family coming together -- and almost falling apart -- over a Thanksgiving dinner. "The Station Agent" is the story of a withdrawn little person (Peter Dinklage) who is bequeathed a train depot and, when he moves into it, also inherits three new friends.

At both films, moviegoers have laughed until they cried, and cried until they laughed. And that makes Sundance buyers really edgy.

The distributors are doubly worried about "Pieces of April" because the film was made by the same company behind "Tadpole," has the same digital video coarseness and is being sold by the same lawyer, John Sloss. Several buyers say Sloss wants to sell "Pieces of April" for more than $5 million.

"But unfortunately, the weight of 'Tadpole' is on their shoulders," says David Dinerstein of Paramount Classics, who nevertheless is among the bidders for "Pieces of April." To Dinerstein, "April" is reminiscent of one of his own hits. "In some ways, 'Pieces of April' reminds me of 'You Can Count on Me,' " says Dinerstein, referring to Paramount Classics' Oscar-nominated 2000 film.

Still, ignoring audience reaction is nearly impossible here. Sundance acquisitions screenings, which can number more than five a day, are a film buyer's version of a sold-out rock concert.

The people looking to purchase distribution rights rush into theaters (occasionally cutting long lines to grab the best seats), some stuffing blank contracts into their day packs in case they need to make a quick deal in the lobby. The theater's mosh pit is made up of more than a dozen buyers' representatives, ranging from HBO to United Artists, all poised to strike.

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