Mike Fleming

Dealmakers who came into Park City hoping to recapture the acquisitions momentum of last fall’s Toronto Film Festival returned this week with smiles on their faces. And why not? By my count, 38 transactions have been completed on Sundance films so far, with several more coming. Buyers estimate that at least eight of those deals brought a minimum guarantee of $2 million or higher: The Details and My Idiot Brother to The Weinstein Company, Like Crazy to Paramount/Indian Paintbrush, Margin Call to Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, Another Earth to Fox Searchlight, Silent House to Liddell Entertainment, Homework to Fox Searchlight, and The Devil’s Double to Lionsgate and Herrick Entertainment.

Nobody could be accused of the drunken spending that occasionally happened in past Sundance Festivals. But considering the shellacking the indie business has taken over the past several years, there were intriguing team-ups and bold plays all over the place. Like when Sony Pictures Classics acquired the Michael Shannon-in-meltdown-mode Take Shelter, sight unseen, and the SPC team strutted when the film played to glowing reviews; when Steven Rales’ Indian Paintbrush became the surprise catalyst in the  $4 million deal to acquire festival favorite Like Crazy, or when Ron Burkle partnered with Harvey Weinstein in the $7.5 million guarantee/$10 million P&A acquisition of the Tobey Maguire black comedy The Details; when Focus Features bought Dee Rees’s much discussed directing debut Pariah, and made her next script part of the deal; or when HBO preemptively acquired all rights to the documentary Project Nim (after getting a preview along with other cable networks that wanted the film), then resold theatrical to Roadside Attractions. Veteran buyers said the big change was the unusual array of different deals made for TV, VOD, foreign and remake rights, which reflected an encouraging new reality for Sundance features and documentaries. In the past, you either made a deal, or your film likely disappeared. Maturing platforms have created a greater opportunity for independent films to be seen, and possibly monetized, even if a theatrical release isn’t in the cards.

“The prices were on the low side, there were no 8-figure deals, but deal making was never like this, and that was because there were never this many outlets via all the new technologies,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-head Tom Bernard, who with partner Michael Barker acquired The Guard and made preemptive deals for Take Shelter and Morgan Spurlock’s POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Those deals ranged from the remake deals for the documentaries Knuckle to HBO and Rough House for a TV series, and The Bengali Detective to Searchlight; documentary deals by Oprah Winfrey’s upstart cable network OWN for Becoming Chaz and Crime After Crime, with plans for those to get a branded boost by becoming part of Oprah’s Documentary Club. If Oprah can get her audience to watch documentaries the way she got them to read books, this could be a shot in the arm for an underrated film genre.

The festival was largely a bust for all of those who came looking for films that could play on 2000 screens or more, but most platform-savvy distributors walked away with at least one movie. Distributors like Searchlight, TWC, Sony Pictures Classsics and IFC walked away with several pictures each. Agents who burned the midnight oil making deals said that buyers were patient, running P&L models before making reasonable bids.

“Even though the buying was steady, nobody got carried away,” said Lionsgate’s Joe Drake. “There was a genuine entrepreneurial excitement about exploring fresh ways of looking at a movie and uncovering new ways to monetize content. I think this type of activity can also help rejuvenate the business and incite capital to return to independent filmmaking. The idea that people may have renewed interest in putting money into making movies and backing creative vision is exciting for distributors like us.”

Numerous buyers tempered their enthusiasm by saying that if the purchased films don’t do business at the box office, the indie business could be right back where it started. But there were no $30 million auteur-driven art films here. Most of the Sundance slate was comprised of films made for low cost that left room for financiers and distributors to feel nobody will lose their shirt. Harvey Weinstein, who was at the center of two of the fest’s biggest deals for The Details and My Idiot Brother, said he thought that the strong showing by independent films made in the Best Picture race announced during Sundance didn’t hurt, either.

“Fox Searchlight turned up the heat with Black Swan, we turned it up with The King’s Speech and Focus turned it up on The Kids Are All Right,” Weinstein told me. “Then people see us up here, competing and bumping up against each other again. I think it helped turn the market back on, with everyone taking a look and saying, ‘Holy shit, it’s time.”

Below is a breakdown of acquisitions, broken out by deal brokers.

SUNDANCE 2011: DOMESTIC DEALS by SALES AGENT
Film (grouped under sales agent) Sold to…
UTA
I MELT WITH YOU Magnolia
LIKE CRAZY Paramount
MARGIN CALL Lionsgate + Roadside
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE Fox Searchlight
MY IDIOT BROTHER TWC
THE GUARD SPC
SALVATION BOULEVARD IFC & SPWAG
THE DETAILS The Weinstein Co.
THE FUTURE Roadside
SON OF NO ONE Anchor Bay
CAA
BELLFLOWER Oscilloscope
KNUCKLE HBO (w/ Rough House)
SILENT HOUSE Lidell Entertainment
TAKE SHELTER SPC
THE DETAILS The Weinstein Co.
THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE Lionsgate
HIGHER GROUND pending…
THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD Sony Worldwide Acquisitions
SUBMARINE
CRIME AFTER CRIME OWN (Oprah Network)
BUCK IFC (Sundance Selects)
I MELT WITH YOU Magnolia
PAGE ONE Magnolia & Participant
PROJECT NIM HBO
PROJECT NIM Roadside Attractions
THE LAST MOUNTAIN Dada Films (MJ Peckos)
THE LAST MOUNTAIN New Video / Docurama
WME
ANOTHER EARTH Fox Searchlight
CORMAN’S WORLD A&E IndieFilms
PERFECT SENSE IFC
SON OF NO ONE Anchor Bay
ON THE ICE Pending
REBIRTH Pending
PREFERRED CONTENT (Kevin Iwashina)
ANOTHER EARTH Fox Searchlight
HOT COFFEE HBO
THE LEDGE IFC
JESS + MOSS Visit Films
MISS REPRESENTATION Pending…
PARADIGM
CIRCUMSTANCE Participant Media
THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE Lionsgate
THESE AMAZING SHADOWS IFC / Sundance Selects
BEATS RHYMES & LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST Pending
ICM
HOMEWORK Fox Searchlight
CINETIC
PARIAH Focus
Cassian Elwes
SON OF NO ONE Anchor Bay
THE LEDGE IFC
MARGIN CALL Lionsgate + Roadside
OTHER DEALS
Title Distributor
E1
MAD BASTARDS IFC / Sundance Selects
George Rush
SEPTIEN IFC / Sundance Selects
HANWAY
LIFE IN A DAY National Geographic
HURWITZ
BENGALI DETECTIVE (remake rights) Fox Searchlight
Ronna Wallace
GUN HILL ROAD Distributor Motion Film Group
Trustnordisk
PERFECT SENSE IFC
INDIVIDUAL DEALS BY INDEPENDENT PRODUCERS
Title Distributor
BECOMING CHAZ OWN
THE FLAW New Video
UNCLE KENT IFC / Sundance Selects
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN Magnolia / Magnet
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