Monday January 22 04:05 AM EST
Buying tide out at Sundance
By Ian Mohr
PARK CITY, Utah (The Hollywood Reporter) --- The buying climate certainly was not as brisk as the temperature in Park City as the Sundance Film Festival hit its stride during the weekend. High-profile films uniformly flopped with buyers, and no domestic sales were made by press time during what had been expected to be a busy first four days.
"It's early on," Artisan executive vp acquisitions Patrick Gunn said. "But on the other hand, I don't remember the festival going into Sunday without the announcement of an acquisition."
However, the true "festival" side of Sundance seems to be conquering the frenzied "film market" atmosphere as smaller, noncommercial films garner kudos if not blockbuster distribution deals.
On the business front, fickle buyers are saying they are disappointed -- with one or two exceptions -- with the mediocrity of the fest's most hyped titles.
The fest was front-loaded with weekend screenings of high-profile films such as "Donnie Darko," "Green Dragon," "Double Whammy" and "The Business of Strangers" that were not snapped up immediately, and so the buzz shifted to smaller films bubbling to the surface by the hour, filling a vacuum of disenchantment.
Citing the lack of a buying wave, execs also now are viewing the fest as a talent identification contest for future works from up-and-coming filmmakers.
It all started with an indie honcho-packed Friday screening of "Darko," the fest's most talked-about title, from first-time writer-helmer Richard Kelly. The project was expected to be a commercial confection, complete with special effects, a teen theme and a cast including Drew Barrymore, Jake Gyllenhaal and Noah Wyle.
When Miramax co-topper Harvey Weinstein jovially sauntered out of the screening with a "Darko" ball cap and Miramax execs huddled intensely outside the Eccles Theater, the stage was set for a big buy to kick off things. But behind the scenes, "Darko" was called an "impressive failure" by one top indie exec, and its stock quickly plummeted as acquisitions people roundly agreed.
"Darko" was still without a domestic deal by press time.
Another film with a name cast, headlined by Elizabeth Hurley and Denis Leary, Tom DiCillo's "Double Whammy" also got a lukewarm reception at best, as did the highly anticipated Julia Stiles-Stockard Channing-starrer "Business of Strangers."
"I think there are solid films in terms of craftsmanship but nothing as far as commerciality," Universal Focus acquisitions executive Dennis O'Connor said.
"I've seen a lot of good films that would have a tough time with audiences," IFC Films head Bob Berney said. "It's a challenge." But Berney also sees this year as par for the course. "The buzz films and anticipated films generally disappoint," he added. "And that's when the unknowns and odd docs suddenly stand out."
The disappointment in "Darko" and "Whammy" also signals a shifting of Sundance to a space where buyers want commercial fare, not tough sells down the line.
"There doesn't seem to be yet the 'Shine' or huge, big films," one top indie buyer said. "So far, there have been interesting smaller (projects) and a lot of disappointments."
One film that has not disappointed is GreeneStreet Films and Good Machine's "In the Bedroom," starring Sissy Spacek. According to sources, five major indies are in a behind-the-scenes bidding war for "Bedroom."
" 'In the Bedroom' is the best film I've seen," one indie exec said. "But that's a classic art-house, tough commercial film," he added.
Joel Hopkins' "Jump Tomorrow" is another title that has popped up as a clear front-runner, closing a French sales deal during the weekend with ARP. A domestic deal seems close behind. Another film believed to be popular this year is Henry Bean's "The Believer."
Jay Chandrasekhar's comedy "Super Troopers" also has trooped into the position of a festival favorite.
"Some films that weren't necessarily on my radar have been really strong surprises," acquisitions exec Marcy Drogin of Michael Douglas' Furthur Films said. "But I haven't seen one compelling movie that's really blown me away."
If nothing else, the fest has shifted into a talent sweepstakes.
"I'm not that disappointed," Miramax's Mark Gill said. "I think there's some really interesting filmmaking, and I've seen some really good storytelling. Maybe it's not fabulously executed, but I'm encouraged."
Lisa Fragner, former Fox Searchlight East Coast development head now with New York's Axial Entertainment, said: "I've seen a lot of smaller projects that were not strong acquisitions films but great talent samples."
Docs creating heat are the skateboarding epic "Dogtown and Z-Boys" and Sandi Simcha Dubowski's story of homosexual Orthodox Jews "Trembling Before G-d."
But whatever the status of the indie business world might be, the party circuit was quite healthy during the first weekend, thanks in part to Weinstein, who was seen after a late-night screening Friday at parties for both USA Films and Universal Focus. Other major shindigs were thrown by Catch 23 Entertainment, WMA and Hugo Boss.