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What's behind this apparent uptick? Well, if 30 films sold then there are 30 different reasons... But while I wait to gather quotes from traveling distributors and acquisition heads, here are a few thoughts on the thinking behind some of these deals.
1. Success Breeds Success. The Kids are All Right, Winter's Bone, The Fighter, Black Swan, Exit Through the Gift Shop -- specialty film box office was unexpectedly cheery as 2010 came to a close. So, it's only natural that these companies, having focused their marketing departments on specialty coin, would seek a repeat for 2011. When I asked one agent why he thought Searchlight picked up Another Earth, for example, he cited the success the company had with another auteurist genre picture, the seemingly un-Seachlight-like Black Swan.
2. Awards Season. Last year at this time, many were expecting the mega-budget Avatar to dominate the Oscars. Instead, the indie The Hurt Locker won along with other indies like Crazy Heart. This year, it's the specialty titles (along with the adult drama The Social Network) that have the inside track. Companies may grumble about costly and sometimes unprofitable Oscar campaigns, but the executives at these companies still want the recognition of the major Awards. And Sundance remains a place to acquire these films.
3. New Acting Talent. Last year at this time Jennifer Lawrence was just an up-and-coming young actress. Today she's an Oscar nominee with a huge career ahead of her. This year, acquisitions companies were mindful of the stars of tomorrow. Three new young actresses -- Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Silent House); Brit Marling (Another Earth); and Adepero Oduye (Pariah) -- were acclaimed at Sundance, and their star power added value to their films. (Watch for Marling's other film, The Sound of My Voice, to hopefully get picked up in the days ahead.)
4. New Directing Talent. When Focus picked up the accessible and emotional Pariah, they coupled it with a deal for its writer/director, Dee Rees, to pen another script she might direct. When Fox Searchlight bought Martha Marcy May Marlene, they made a deal with not only writer/director Sean Durkin but began a relationship with his prolific young production collective Borderline Films. Similarly, with the Another Earth deal Fox Searchlight begins a relationship with an impressive new writing/directing talent, Mike Cahill. For so long executives have been fond of telling filmmakers, "We love this film, but we'd rather make your next one." Not this year.
5. New Money. "There's a lot of new money out there," one sales rep told me hours before she closed a deal on one of her Sundance titles. From new companies Relativity and CBS Films (which, despite advance predictions, haven't bought anything yet) and Motion Film Group to Mickey Lidell's new distribution venture to supermarket magnate (and Bill Clinton pal) Ron Burkle's partnering on the Weinstein Company's acquisition of My Idiot Brother, new players are seizing this moment to enter the content business, and they need product.
Okay, that's five reasons. Thirty or so deals, that only leaves 25 to go...
"SILENT HOUSE," "TERRI," & "ON THE ICE" PRODUCER LYNETTE HOWELL By Alicia Van Couvering
Originally printed in our Fall 2010 issue, we asked a number of leading independent producers about their producing models and how they're finding everything from financing to material to office space. Lynette Howell has three titles in this year's Sundance: Chris Kentis & Laura Lau's Silent House, Azazel Jacob's Terri and Andrew Okpeaha MacLean's On The Ice.
How to pay oneself a salary, maintain an office and employ assistants? And embrace risky projects? For Lynette Howell the answer is staying in constant motion. more
"EX-SEX" DIRECTOR MICHAEL MOHAN By James Ponsoldt
2010 was a big year for Michael Mohan. His first feature, One Too Many Mornings, premiered at Sundance (and can now be watched - in its entirety - on Hulu). He directed a music video for Fitz and the Tantrums that was blogged about by Justin Timberlake (no, really). And one year later he returns to Park City with a short film, Ex-Sex. more
"THE OFF HOURS" DIRECTOR MEGAN GRIFFITHS By Nick Dawson
Good things come to those who wait, as writer-director Megan Griffiths will attest. The debut feature from the Seattle-based filmmaker, The Off Hours, was seven years in the making before it finally went into production last spring. Inspired by Griffiths' own experiences working the night shift, this moody, atmospheric indie captures the lives of the people who frequent a diner in a nowhere truckstop town, including pretty young waitress Francine (Amy Seimetz), her foster brother Corey (Scoot McNairy), soft-spoken truck driver Oliver (Ross Partridge), and alcoholic diner owner Stu (Tony Doupe). more
"THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD," CO-WRITER-DIRECTOR MORGAN SPURLOCK The biggest surprise for me in the making of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold was that we actually got brands and companies to not only agree to be in the film, but to actually pay for it. more
"HIGHER GROUND," DIRECTOR VERA FARMIGA There was a steady drumbeat of "gotchas" on the Higher Ground adventure. From my Clearblue Easy stick test reading "positive" at the same time as financing magically appeared, and then hurdling through preproduction before my baby bump emerged, to our first day when the catering guy stole our craft-service food. He just didn't company move when we did. Or rather he did, but in the opposite direction. Higher Ground was infested with shockers. more
"RED STATE," WRITER-DIRECTOR KEVIN SMITH When we unmasked the Bog Monster and it turned out to be old man Whithers, we were literally dumbfounded. Why? Because he OWNS the allegedly haunted amusement park. We should've seen it. more
VISITING LANCE WEILER'S "PANDEMIC" By Scott Macaulay
I stopped by Sundance's New Frontiers building yesterday and visited Pandemic 1.0 with its creator, Lance Weiler. Here's a short, casual Flip video with Weiler showing me the two rooms of the installation. see video