Sundance institute, photo by jemal countess.

While the industry awaits the first big on-site deal in Sundance, where the much-fancied American Animals is expected to close soon, buzz is starting to emerge on several other titles over the first weekend.

Boots Riley’s outrageous satire Sorry To Bother You drew multiple key buyers to Saturday evening’s world premiere at The Library, with Amazon Studios, Focus Features, NEON, Aviron, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, and Samuel Goldwyn Films among those in attendance. Endeavor Content represents worldwide rights.

Across town Wash Westmoreland’s Colette starring Keira Knightley was receiving its premiere in the Eccles and has been high on buyers’ must-see lists. The Premieres selection from Number 9 Films, Killer Films and Bold Films stars Knightley as the titular French author. Westmoreland directs and shares a writing credit with his late husband and collaborator Richard Glatzer (who died in 2015) and Rebecca Lemkowicz. CAA and Endeavor Content handle the US, while HanWay Films represents international rights.

Meanwhile NEON was understood to be one of possibly several buyers circling Carlos López Estrada’s buddy comedy Blindspotting (Endeavor Content), and interest had coalesced around Reinaldo Marcus Green’s US Dramatic Competition entry and police shooting drama Monsters And Men, which Endeavor Content handles and screens again on Sunday.

Ben Lewin’s political thriller The Catcher Was A Spy starring Paul Rudd debuted in Premieres on Friday and could entice Netflix or a day-and-date company like Saban Films. UTA Independent Film Group handles US rights and FilmNation represents international sales.

Jesse Peretz’s Nick Hornby adaptation Juliet, Naked, a three-header comedy with a predictably memorable soundtrack that stars Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd, screened in Premieres on Friday and Saturday and plays again on Sunday. CAA and UTA Independent Film Group represent US rights. Rocket Science handles international sales. Paul Dano’s feature directorial debut Wildlife starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal premiered in US Dramatic Competition on Saturday afternoon and screens again on Sunday. Endeavor Content handles the US, while FilmNation represents international sales.

TrustNordisk’s remarkable thriller The Guilty has already screened for press and industry and receives its public world premiere in World Cinema Dramatic Competition on Sunday. Gustav Moller’s directorial debut stars Jakob Cedergren as a police officer demoted to call emergency operator work who must deal with a kidnapping case. The film has already created a stir among those who have seen it and besides the straight acquisition, could hold English-language remake potential for a studio or streaming platform.

UTA Independent Film Group continued to field interest from US buyers on American Animals, Bart Layton’s US Dramatic Competition entry that impressed in its Friday night premiere and features Barry Keoghan (The Killing Of A Sacred Deer) in the tale of four youngsters who attempt an art heist. Sierra/Affinity handles international sales on Layton’s dramatic debut and first feature since the acclaimed Sundance 2012 documentary The Imposter.

Earlier in the day local police estimated 1,000 people convened for the Respect Rally in support of women’s rights in Park City. Jane Fonda, attorney Gloria Allred, and actress Tessa Thompson were among a crowd that braved the snow. Turnout was roughly one-quarter of last year’s event, which had the added impetus of the Trump inauguration.

Anticipated Saturday night premieres

Saturday night brings the world premiere of Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone follow-up Leave No Trace, the Premieres selection about a father and daughter living off the grid. Ben Foster plays the father, while Granik’s little-known female lead is Thomasin Harcourt McKenzieas as the daughter. Endeavor Content handles worldwide sales and the pedigree is clear. Winter’s Bone won the grand jury prize back in Sundance 2010 and went on to earn four Oscar nods including one for best picture and another for the film’s then-unknown star, Jennifer Lawrence.

Idris Elba’s feature directorial debut Yardie, a coming-of-age drama was due to premiere on Saturday evening in World Cinema Dramatic Competition, and hails from worldwide rights holder Studiocanal. CAA represents Jonathan Watson’s Midnight selection Arizona, a kidnap comedy romp starring Danny McBride and Rosemarie DeWitt that premieres on Saturday night.

Of interest among the documentaries so far are police whistleblower tale Crime + Punishment, family story Three Identical Strangers, Slamdance crowd-pleaser Pick Of The Litter, and art world doc The Price Of Everything, which HBO Documentary Films picked up for US TV before the festival. Submarine Entertainment represents all four, as it does Kusama – Infinity, which screens to press and industry on Saturday. Submarine has also received attention on Derek Doneen’s child slave labour doc Kailash.

Sunday treats

Looking ahead to Sunday, anticipated titles include The Handmaid’s Tale director Reed Morano’s sci-fi drama I Think We’re Alone Now, the US Dramatic Competition selection that premieres at the Eccles in the afternoon and stars Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage. Endeavor Content and CAA represent US rights and Global Road handles international.

Rupert Everett’s feature directorial debut The Happy Prince starring Everett as Oscar Wilde will draw the art house buyers. CAA handles US rights while Beta Cinema is on board international sales. Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation from Bron is the Midnight screening buyers are keen to watch.

Submarine handles sales on Sandi Tan’s Shirkers. The story of LA-based Singapore-born filmmaker and novelist Tan, whose debut shot some 25 years ago in Singapore and was stolen by her American mentor.

Deals announced so far include Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions taking international rights to Brett Haley’s crowd-pleaser Hearts Beat Loud – Endeavor Content is in talks with US buyers – and O-Scope’s preemptive buy on North American rights to Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The King.

Distribution landscape in flux

Friday’s announcement that 30WEST had snapped up a majority stake in NEON, with whom it has enjoyed a strong theatrical run and awards campaign for I, Tonya, will further stoke interest in the activities of Micah Green and Dan Friedkin’s investment vehicle. 30WEST’s capital allied to the distribution savvy of Tom Quinn and Tim League’s NEON gives the entity a seat at the table and it will be a force when it chooses to pursues acquisitions.

It remains to be seen how active Fox Searchlight will be. The distributor was unable to convert Park City buzz on Sundance 2017 acquisitions Patti Cake$ and the documentary Step into financial returns at the box office, which only compounds the caution over theatrical buys in the protean North American distribution landscape.

While it is hard to imagine Searchlight not bidding on something here – the distributor has after all has enjoyed success over the years with Sundance buys – the impending acquisition by Disney of Fox could also be a factor.

Regulatory requirements mean the marriage will not be consummated until 2019, however such top-level corporate business must figure into the strategic thinking of Searchlight co-heads Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula.

It cannot hurt that the company has arguably the two Oscar frontrunners in the form of The Shape Of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, although the fate of Searchlight’s original productions will have little bearing on the Park City acquisition mandate.

Despite talk of Netflix and Amazon hunkering down as they expand their original content strategies, it seems inconceivable that neither will be in the running for a film or three, beyond what they have brought to the festival.

Amazon Studios, the world’s most deep-pocketed art house distributor, is said to be planning a strategic shift at the behest of Amazon chief Jeff Bezos to accommodate commercial fare a la Netflix. The company is said to be lining up an executive shake-up that according to one recent report could mean the arrival of Stacey Snider.

The 20th Century Fox chairman must be weighing up her next move in light of the Disney merger, and she could be the solution for Bezos as he seeks to bolster the company’s commercial film profile in the way Netflix wants to do with the hire last year of former Universal top executive Scott Stuber.

Amazon Studios scored last year with the acquisition of The Big Sick. The comedy has grossed $42m at the North American box office and is a genuine Oscar contender in the original screenplay category, and may even score a best picture nod. All will be revealed when the Academy announces its nominees on Tuesday (January 23).