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Independent film market rebounds at Sundance Film Festival

After a dry stretch when many movies went unsold, distributors have snapped up as many as two dozen pictures at this year's Sundance festival.

January 29, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Park City, Utah — The festival market for independent films is again attracting Hollywood's attention after several years in the economic doldrums.

Witness the quick deal cut at the Sundance Film Festival by the indie market's resurgent showman, Harvey Weinstein.

It was just after 10 one night last week when Weinstein stopped by a dinner to meet producers and sales agents of the film "My Idiot Brother," a dysfunctional-family comedy starring Paul Rudd that had just been shown.

By the next day, Weinstein, with help from supermarket mogul Ron Burkle, opened his wallet and spent upwards of $6 million for the right to distribute the film in the U.S. and select foreign countries.

In a similar fashion, as many as two dozen films were sold here over the last week in an atmosphere reminiscent of independent movies' go-go years in the 1990s and mid-2000s.

Others included "Like Crazy," a romantic drama sold to Paramount Pictures and the production company Indian Paintbrush for about $4 million, and the Tobey Maguire black comedy "The Details," which was also bought by the Weinstein Co., for about $7.5 million.

It's a sharp turnaround from recent years at Sundance, when many films went unsold at the festival and often couldn't find a home, even at a discounted price, weeks or months later.

While the wisdom of these investments won't be known for months, when the films are released commercially, many saw the fact that distributors were willing to spend as a sign of renewed vigor in the independent-film business.

"I think the correction we all talked about two years ago has been made," said Rena Ronson, a sales agent at United Talent Agency, which has been responsible for a whopping nine acquisitions at this year's festival. "The movies that shouldn't have been made didn't get made, and many of those that did were made at more reasonable budgets."

Major players that had been cautious in the past were very active this year. Specialty-film studio Fox Searchlight, for instance, which in recent years had bought one or even no films at Sundance, acquired rights to three pictures. That includes worldwide rights to "Martha Marcy May Marlene," a drama about a woman who escapes a cult that stars Elizabeth Olsen, sister of twin actors Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen.

When Focus Features acquired the rights to "Pariah," a coming-of-age drama directed by Dee Rees, a protege of Spike Lee, on Friday, it meant that nearly every major specialty player (the list also includes Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, IFC, Sony Pictures Classics and Magnolia Pictures) had made a buy here. Only Summit Entertainment had not made a purchase at this year's festival.

Attendees at Sundance had numerous explanations for the rebound in the market after more than two years in the dumps, from a groundswell of well-regarded debut filmmakers, to emboldened buyers (Weinstein, for instance, is flush with cash after the success of "The King's Speech' and a refinancing plan) to movies made at a lower cost, which entails fewer investors slowing down sales negotiations.

Industry experts also point to the box-office success of several films out of Sundance last year — most notably "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone" — that emboldened buyers willing to take a risk.

Still, whenever the market picks up there is concern over a bubble. The independent-film business tends to swing between two poles — bearish and exuberant — and rarely settles at a steady middle ground.

Four years ago, a number of niche films sold at astronomical prices, including most famously the British coming-of-age drama "Son of Rambow," which went to Paramount Vantage for an estimated $8 million. Those prices were part of a speculative bubble that burst several months later when many of the films flopped at the box office. Vantage and several other specialty-film studios closed soon after.

But buyers said they were driven this time by the quality of the films, and that, even with all the acquisitions at this year's festival, they felt they kept costs in check to avoid undue exposure.

"We bought three films from people we believe are very talented filmmakers," said Fox Searchlight vice president of worldwide acquisitions Tony Safford, "and we bought them at very reasonable prices."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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