For foreign buyers, the Sundance Film Festival has never been easy to navigate, let's face it. Intrepid acquisitions executives not only have an epic trip trekking to its home in the ski resort of Park City. Once there they are also faced with a raft of unknown films, struggle to get the attention of US-centric producers' reps, and are often cut out of the equation altogether when a multi-territory studio deal is done.

So why brave the altitude, sluggish shuttle service and long queues for films at all' Why pay a small fortune to attend a film festival where foreign territory deals are rarely done'

As it turns out, Sundance might just be becoming one of those events they can't afford to miss. "Gone are the days of skiing and schmoozing," says Charlotte Mickie, sales chief at Alliance Atlantis. "Sundance is now a serious venue for foreign buyers to see a lot of films very early. For that reason, it can be a really gruelling, physically exhausting event, but they have to weigh that and the cost to their pocketbook up against the edge that it gives them."

"They come if they want to get a heads up on the films that are out there," confirms Rena Ronson, co-head of WMA Independent, who with partner Cassian Elwes is this year is representing eight films in the festival. "It's a very competitive time out there and if you want to see Dot The I or The United States Of Leland before AFM, you have to come to Sundance," adds Elwes. "Even if it sells to a Miramax or New Line for the world, you are there at the beginning and talk straight away to who is representing the movie."

One of what Mickie calls the "hardcore elite arthouse buying gang", Karin Beyens of France's Diapahana is at Sundance for her fifth consecutive year. She says that the buzz going into the festival is becoming more accurate than it has in the past, giving valuable pointers as to which films to pinpoint. "US buyers are tracking these films better and tend to know going in what's good and what's not. They know the producers and have read the projects, so I believe the buzz more these days."

Beyens clinched French rights for Girlfight in 2000 at the festival immediately after Fiona Mitchell of United Artists had closed her deal for international rights with the film's rep John Sloss. "I told [Sloss] I was interested and he told me that I'd have to wait until he did the worldwide deal with Fiona. It was good for her to know that France and Germany were interested and I think it's good for sales agents that we are there on site to consult with on the value of the films."

Both Mickie and Sloss stress that if a buyer is particularly passionate about a project, their chances at separating rights from a studio worldwide or multi-territory deal are greater. Sloss sold The Deep End to the late Kermit Smith of Lucky Red outside of the film's worldwide deal with Fox Searchlight, and Mickie says that Italy's Mikado took rights to Personal Velocity at last year's festival before she came on board as the sales agent.

Ironically for a festival known for its high-spending acquisitions, Sundance tends to generate caution from foreign attendees. Beyens admits that five years ago, she was more adventurous since she could open a US independent and sell it to TV. "I am now vigilant as to what will happen to the film after Sundance," she says. "I want to know who is going to handle the film internationally, who is the US distributor, I want to talk to other Europeans and see what they think of it. US independents don't tend to work for us, especially if they have not been launched at a prestigious European film festival like Venice, Cannes or Berlin. Just being in Sundance doesn't mean that much for a film in France."

Sure enough, Beyens said that Girlfight only got recognition in France after its festival selection for Cannes Directors Fortnight and Deauville. "There are no influential French press at Sundance," she adds.

And with such caution being exercised by the Europeans, it's no secret that studio divisions are more prone to aggressive multi-territory acquisitions at Sundance. Elwes and Ronson point to their deals on The Good Girl, The Dancer Upstairs and Bloody Sunday last Sundance as examples of tapping into studio-owned companies' international appetites. "Most of the studio companies like to take English-speaking territories, a lot take Latin America, Paramount Classics will go for Japan, Columbia TriStar would take a lot of different ones," explains Elwes.

The reality is that it is economically more attractive for a studio to do a multi-territory deal and not just domestic, while also making the deal more attractive to the seller.

That appetite from studios is certainly getting bigger, and it's not just to fill pay-TV deals, claim Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein, the co-chiefs of Paramount Classics. "We buy where we have a good handle of the markets," says Vitale. "In Japan, for example, there is particular expertise within UIP of releasing specialised films," adds Dinerstein. "In the UK, we sometimes work with other theatrical distributors. We sold You Can Count On Me to Momentum and Mostly Martha to Optimum, for example."

Focus Features' vice president of acquisitions Jason Resnick also looks for opportunistic buys. When it comes to Sundance, however, he is cautious. "Focus will be looking to buy films at Sundance, but it doesn't make that much sense for Universal to buy foreign territories on speciality films early on in the process," he says. Indeed, Universal bought rights in Germany and Japan for Universal to Sundance 2001 hit In The Bedroom - at Sundance 2002. "Only then, when the film had taken off in the awards race, had it gained the profile which would warrant Universal buying it," he adds.

Sundance festival chief Geoffrey Gilmore is working hard to address the needs of foreign buyers: he has initiated a sales office under Joy Newhouse and is looking into launching industry screenings in future years as well as raising the profile of international films in the World Cinema section. "I am not as concerned that we are the launchpad for European films as much as for English-language films, which means UK and Australian films as well as US," he said this week from Park City.

"I am aware that the foreign press isn't as clued in to Sundance as it is to Cannes or Venice, but I believe that there is a parochialism in the European press about US independents. So much of what we do at Sundance is pure discovery, and all they want to write about is the US studios. Having said that, there are some very high profile films that have come out of Sundance."

Indeed, while US independent films might prove underwhelming overseas more often than not, who can risk missing out on the next sex, lies and videotape or You Can Count On Me'. "It is simplistic to think that American independents do no work overseas," says Sloss. "If you really studied the foreign marketplace you will see there are considerable territorial variations. For example, Brad Anderson [director of Sundance hits Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents] is huge in Spain. His last film, Session 9, made more at Spanish theatres than it did at the US box office. In fact, his next film will be fully financed out of Spain"



Contact: MEDIAPRO (international)

Contact: Nick Meyer & Sergei Yershov, Lions Gate Films International (international)

Dot The I
Contact: Cassian Elwes & Rena Ronson, WMA Independent (domestic) Patrick Wachsberger, Summit Entertainment (international)

The Event
Contact: Jeff Sackman, THINKFilm (international)

Good Fences
Contact: Sally Frankel, Showtime (international)

It's All About Love
Contact: Bart Walker, ICM (domestic) Peter Aalbaek Jensen,Trust Film Sales (international)

Contact: Pierre Weisbein, StudioCanal (international)

Masked And Anonymous
Contact: Pamela Pickering, IEG (international)

Contact: Shebnem Askin, Pandora (international)

Off The Map
Contact: Andrew Hurwitz, Epstein, Levinsohn, Bodine, Hurwitz & Weinstein (worldwide)

Owning Mahowny
Contact: Charlotte Mickie, Alliance Atlantis (international)

The Secret Lives Of Dentists
Contact: Gary Hamilton, Arclight Films (international)

People I Know
Contact: Kirk D'Amico, Myriad Pictures (international)

The Shape Of Things
Contact: Glen Basner, Focus Features (international)

The Singing Detective
Contact: Simon Crowe, Icon Entertainment International (domestic & international)

Soldier's Girl
Contact: Sally Frankel, Showtime (domestic & international)


All The Real Girls
Contact: Charlotte Mickie, Alliance Atlantis (international)

American Splendor
Contact: Glenn Whitehead, HBO (domestic), Suzanne Barron, HBO (international)

Contact: John Sloss, Cinetic Media, & Michael Werner, Fortissimo Film Sales (worldwide)

The Cooler
Contact: Cassian Elwes & Rena Ronson, WMA Independent (domestic) Jamie Carmichael, Content International (international)

Die Mommie Die
Contact: Howard Cohen, UTA (worldwide)

Contact: Jeff Dowd (worldwide)

The Mudge Boy
Contact: Sally Frankel, Showtime (domestic & international)

Party Monster
Contact: John Sloss, Cinetic Media (domestic) Michael Werner, Fortissimo Film Sales (international)

Pieces Of April
Contact: John Sloss, Cinetic Media (worldwide)

Quattro Noza
Contact: John Sloss, Cinetic Media (worldwide)

Rhythm Of The Saints
Contact: Andrew Hurwitz, Epstein, Levinsohn, Bodine, Hurwitz & Weinstein (worldwide)

The Station Agent
Contact: John Sloss, Cinetic Media (worldwide)

The Technical Writer
Contact: Andrew Herwitz, The Film Sales Co (worldwide)

Contact: Ken Kamins & Bart Walker, ICM (worldwide)

The United States Of Leland
Contact: Cassian Elwes & Rena Ronson, WMA Independent (domestic) MDP Worldwide (international)

What Alice Found
Contact: Peter Newman, Gotham Sales (worldwide)

Film (US distributor) Sundance section Total US gross to date
1 One Hour Photo (Fox Searchlight) Premiere $31.6m
2 Empire (Universal) American Showcase $16.6m
3 The Good Girl (Fox Searchlight) Premiere $14m
4 Y Tu Mama Tambien (IFC Films) Surprise Screening $13.6m
5 Real Women Have Curves (Newmarket/HBO) Competition $5.36m
6 Birthday Girl (Miramax) Premiere $4.91m
7 Secretary (Lions Gate) Competition $3.87m
8 Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (Sony Classics) American Showcase $3.29m
9 Tadpole (Miramax) Competition $2.81m
10 The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys (THINKFilm) Premiere $1.78m