Mike Fleming

PARK CITY, UTAH: The acquisitions crowd rolls into the 2011 Sundance Film Festival today with a sense of optimism that dealmaking could pick up where it left off at the Toronto Film Festival last fall. On paper, the signs are encouraging: new buyers and hungry established distributors; plenty of titles with name casts and intriguing plot lines; and a sense of urgency created by sellers bold enough not to prescreen titles for buyers. Several that did screen early wound up with pre-festival deals. Roadside Attractions bought the Grateful Dead-themed drama The Music Never Stopped; Sony Pictures Classics’ bought Take Shelter, sight unseen, as SPC read a script and gambled on the elements; OWN acquired the documentary Becoming Chaz; HBO bought the documentary Project Nim and will sell feature rights; and A&E IndieFilms bought TV rights to Corman’s World. Not to mention that Knuckle, a documentary about two families in Ireland that periodically engages in bare knuckle brawls because of a long simmering dispute, has more than one suitor circling remake rights after CAA sent DVDs because bootlegs already were making the rounds.

There is optimism about the indie business in general right now. Indie films have made a strong awards season showing, with 2010 Sundance films The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone and Blue Valentine in the mix for acting categories at least. Buyers and sellers said the indie business is past its painful bottoming-out phase of the last few years. A leaner, smarter model has emerged and while minimum guarantees and P&A commitments are smaller than years past, filmmakers are keeping their budgets at sensible levels. They’re still drawing stars attracted to provocative material. There were also enough success stories from last year to stoke the fire. “You had this period of too much financing, and over production that left too many movies looking for distribution,” said WME Global’s Graham Taylor. “We saw things stabilize in 2010 and we will see growth in 2011. Demand has definitely picked up, and there are new distributors and players coming in.” Added UTA’s Rena Ronson: “We’ve gone through the slates of the major buyers, and there are major holes. Every major buyer has told us they need films.”

There could well be bidding battles on several fronts this year. There is a bumper crop of buyers looking for product that can open on between 1,500 to 2,000 screens. After absorbing Overture Films, Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media, and Peter Schlessel and Bob Berney’s FilmDistrict fall in step with a reinvigorated Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight, Summit, Lionsgate, Focus and CBS Films. The question: will any of the Sundance films justify spending the $20 million or more in P&A required to support that kind of release? Dark Castle thought it had such a candidate last year when it committed $25 million in P&A to the horror film Splice, only to see it gross about that much, worldwide. Despite this, several horror titles are high priorities for distributors because they can be opened wide.

All of those players but FilmDistrict will be on the prowl for the specialty films that most of the festival films fall into. Sony Pictures Classics, IFC, Anchor Bay, Roadside Attractions and others that stepped up at Toronto last fall are also expected to be aggressive on films that can be platformed, and widened if audiences respond. “There is clearly a strong market for platform films,” said CAA agent Micah Green. “Those titles can bring their distributors both prestige and profit. Also, the lower cost of entry into platform distribution makes it attractive for independent companies who lack the capital to open films wide.‬‪ ‬We have seen a surge in ancillary value for star-driven specialty films. That was the primary driver for the quick pace of business in Toronto — star talent is very attractive for buyers focused on VOD, DVD, digital distribution and cable outlets. There’s a bullishness on the distribution side of the market. You can feel it‬.”

After checking with several major buyers, here are the films most often identified as priority targets:

MY IDIOT BROTHER - The  Jesse Peretz-directed comedy stars Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer.  Rudd plays a guy who, after serving time for pot dealing, moves in with each of his three sisters as he tries to get back on his feet. His best intentions quickly bring the family to the cusp of chaos and ultimately the brink of clarity.

THE SON OF NO ONE - The Dito Montiel-directed drama stars Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes, Tracy Morgan, Ray Liotta and Juliette Binoche. Two men in post-9/11 New York are forced to relive two murders they committed as young boys. Their lives start to unravel by the threat of the revelation.

THE DETAILS - The Jacob Aaron Estes-directed film stars Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney, Ray Liotta and Dennis Haysbert. When hungry raccoons discover worms living under the sod in a young couple’s backyard, the result is a chain reaction of domestic tension, infidelity, organ donation and murder by bow and arrow.

THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE - The Lee Tamahori-directed film stars Dominic Cooper as the centerpiece of a film that explores a chilling vision of the House of Saddam, through the eyes of the man forced to serve as his double.

MARGIN CALL - The JC Chandor-directed drama stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci. Over a 24-hour period during the early stages of the 2008 financial crisis, the key people at an investment bank struggle to decide how to handle the  emergency, confronted by the personal and moral implications of every action they take.

THE SILENT HOUSE - The Chris Kentis-directed film is a remake of the Uruguayan horror film. Sarah returns with her father and uncle to fix up the family’s longtime summerhouse after it was violated by squatters in the off-season. As they work in the dark, Sarah begins to hear sounds from within the walls of the boarded-up building. Although she barely remembers the place, Sarah senses the past may still haunt the home.

RED STATE - The Kevin Smith-directed film stars Michael Parks, Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, John Goodman and Melissa Leo. A group of misfits encounter extreme fundamentalism in Middle America.  It’s being called a horror film.

High on the priority list for potential platform releases:

SALVATION BOULEVARD - The George Ratliff-directed adaptation of the Larry Beinhart novel stars Pierce Brosnan, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Greg Kinnear and Marisa Tomei. An evangelical preacher who has captivated a city with his charm frames an ex-hippie for a crime he did not commit.

ANOTHER HAPPY DAY - The Sam Levinson-directed film stars Demi Moore, Kate Bosworth, Jeffrey DeMunn, Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn and Thomas Haden Church. A pair of reckless siblings are dragged into a chaotic family wedding by their overwrought mother.

CORMAN’S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL - The Alex Stapleton-directed documentary about 50s indie film king Roger Corman has a cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and James Cameron.

HIGHER GROUND - The directorial debut of actress Vera Farmiga stars Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz and Donna Murphy.  A frustrated young mother turns to a fundamentalist community for answers, but after years of dogma and loss, she must find the courage to ask the questions that will help her reclaim her life.

I MELT WITH YOU - The Mark Pellington-directed drama stars Thomas Jane, Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Christian McKay and Carla Gugino.  Four friends, who gather every year, are unexpectedly forced to confront a forgotten promise they made 25 years earlier. As they examine choices they’ve made, they realize that what they said they would do with their lives and what they have done are entirely different.

THE LEDGE - The Matthew Chapman-directed drama stars  Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson and Terrence Howard. Perched on a ledge, a man says he must jump by noon, while a cop races against time to get to the bottom of it

TYRANNOSAUR - The Paddy Considine-directed drama focuses on a man plagued by self-destructive violence and rage. He gets the chance for redemption in the form of Hannah, a Christian charity shop worker with a devastating secret of her own.

PAGE ONE: A YEAR INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES - The Andrew Rossi-directed documentary tracks the media desk of the venerable daily at a time when technological changes plunged it into crisis.

THE CONVINCER - The Jill Sprecher-directed film stars Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Billy Crudup and David Harbour. An insurance salesman, caught in a caper involving a rare musical instrument, sets off a series of dramatic consequences.

Buyers said there is always room for surprises: “You’d hardly have been able to predict Precious based on a verbal description,” said one buyer.  While deal volume might be as strong as Toronto, few expected for huge sums to be paid. Last year, many dealmakers placed P&A commitments as a priority over minimum guarantees, but one seller at a major agency said that strategy was found to have drawbacks: “A distributor can always say, ‘I know we committed, but…’ If they’ve paid that upfront minimum guarantee, they’ve got skin in the game and are incentivized to make the film work.”

The new economic model of indie filmmaking has become a mantra to filmmakers and stars of some of the higher profile Sundance films.

Son of No One writer/director Dito Montiel said his film cost several million, but for that, he was able to assemble a cast that includes Channing Tatum and Al Pacino. “You really are asking people to put millions of dollars into this insane idea you’ve dreamed up for a movie and that is always daunting,” he said. “I’ve been pretty lucky, drawing actors who want to be artists, because I don’t think anybody would show up on my sets just for the money. And this cast really showed up.”

JC Chandor worked on videos and commercials and directed short films before finally, at age 37, getting the chance to make his feature debut on his script Margin Call.  Even though he drew a high profile cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Demi Moore, he operated under a full understanding that the lower the cost and risk, the more likely he was to get another shot behind the camera. “I want to do this again and the easiest way to do that is to keep the budget in check so your investors get paid back,” Chandor said. “That became a primary goal, and I’m not sure I’d have felt that way if I’d done this in a different indie era, when I was 25.”

Spacey, the first actor to sign on for Chandor’s film, said the charm of making that and other indies he frequents is watching a good script build momentum and a cast willing to make sacrifices, like 17 days of summer night shooting atop 1 Penn Plaza, in offices vacated by a hedge fund. Festival buzz will be crucial in making sure the film gets a shot at an audience.

“The movie struck a chord with AFM buyers, where 20 territories were sold based on a minute and a half clip,” Spacey said. “That told us audiences around the world can relate to this economic calamity, which they too are experiencing. It’s not a U.S.-centric film, but we’re going into Sundance hoping to make a good solid domestic deal on the back of that international interest. We’ve all got our fingers crossed that we’ll be able to find a way for this film to be seen.”

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