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Agents seek homes for small films

January 22, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

When sales agent Andrew Herwitz brought "Live-In Maid" to the Sundance Film Festival three years ago, he hoped to land a quick sale, with the promise of the Spanish-language movie's arriving in theaters a few months down the road. But as often turns out with the festival's slighter movies, Sundance was just the start of Herwitz's odyssey with the film.

Some Sundance festivals spark pricey sales, like the Sundance record $10.5-million deal for "Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006. But as this year's festival is proving -- not a single dramatic movie found a theatrical release over the first three days -- dozens of Sundance movies can go home with no buyer at all, and many others fetch only a few hundred thousand dollars -- if that much.

The movies that tend to sell for seven figures and more are usually star-laden comedies with obvious marketing hooks, but even this year's "What Just Happened?" with Robert De Niro and "Sunshine Cleaning" with Amy Adams have so far failed to launch a buying frenzy.

Not surprisingly, it's much harder to find a home for films like "Live-In Maid," a low-budget drama about an Argentine family's having to let go its longtime domestic help. But Sundance is overflowing with similarly tricky movies, and the sales agents handling them are sometimes required to go to unusual lengths to bring them to moviegoers.

Even with a Sundance Special Jury Prize under its belt, "Live-In Maid" was unable to find a distributor after months of effort by Herwitz. Unwavering in his determination to get the movie seen, Herwitz and his Film Sales Co. decided to release "Live-In Maid" themselves, having never released a movie before. Herwitz spent about $50,000 on its release, and the film grossed some $250,000. "For a small release, it did incredibly well," Herwitz says.

But it didn't end there. Herwitz put together a team to remake the movie in English, with Rodrigo Garcia ("Nine Lives") penciled in to direct. "I think the remake of the film could be quite a big studio film," Herwitz says.

Hollywood's big talent agencies -- and one renowned New York lawyer -- orchestrate the majority of Sundance's expensive deals. But a band of sales agents like Herwitz toil in relative obscurity at the same time, working like a show business dating service that pairs out-of-the-ordinary movies with often little-known buyers.

Even though these smaller sellers are as driven by sales commissions as their heavyweight brethren, Hollywood distributors say they can be more personally committed to the films they represent, leaving no stone unturned in their quest for a deal.

"The smaller people will chase us," says Tom Ortenberg of Lionsgate Films. "They'll make sure we have seen every press reaction to a film, or offer to set up a special screening if one of our team hasn't seen it -- even if there's just one glimmer of hope."

Adds Howard Cohen, whose Roadside Attractions is a frequent Sundance buyer: "As opposed to some others, they will continue to work the movies until they get sold."

Every so often, these under-the-radar vendors hit a home run.

At last year's festival, Herwitz sold "Waitress" to Fox Searchlight for $4 million. In 2004, sales agent Rona Wallace sold "Open Water" to Lionsgate for $2.2 million. Before he joined the law firm Greenberg Traurig, attorney Steven Beer helped sell 1999's "Tumbleweeds" to since-defunct Fine Line Features for $5 million.

"They're working out of the house sometimes," Bob Berney of Picturehouse says of the smaller sellers. "But on one pretty good sale, they're in good shape."

Just as the independent film world is split between studio-owned machines such as Fox Searchlight on one end and tiny, essentially mom-and-pop outfits like Strand Releasing on the other, sales agents are quickly dividing between the behemoths and the boutiques.

New York lawyer John Sloss' Cinetic Media arrived in Park City this year with no fewer than 19 films for sale. The Creative Artists Agency is representing 15 movies looking for a distribution deal, and the William Morris Agency has nine movies on the block.

The smaller sellers usually come to town with a half dozen titles or less, and many of those films will be shown in Sundance programming categories -- world documentary, New Frontier -- that rarely generate multimillion-dollar deals.

The talent agencies often represent movies made by or starring prominent clients (CAA is selling "The Wackness," whose financiers are represented by the agency) and use festivals as a starting point in establishing a career. After Endeavor sold Seth Gordon's documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," the talent agency put together a deal for Gordon to direct Vince Vaughn in "Four Christmases."

The second tier of sales agents may be equally interested in building careers but are usually operating with filmmakers and casts who may not break out that easily.

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