With more than $30m shelled out in minimum guarantees and countless more committed to p&a spends, one week into Sundance the festival was on a roll unlike any it had seen in years. Jeremy Kay analyses the deals and the market.
At least 19 deals with domestic elements had closed and more were brewing as the 2011 iteration approached the final weekend.
Based on this remarkable deal flow, the headline from Park City is that the US independent business appears to be in excellent health. It remains to be seen of course how well the films perform at the box office, but attendees agree that a little over two years after the financial collapse, the correction is enabling business to thrive, albeit in a brave new environment.
It all starts with the films and in this regard credit must go to festival director John Cooper, his director of programming Trevor Groth and their team for pulling together a compelling cinematic roster. The films by and large have been good and there has been a handful of superlative entries including Another Earth and Buck, which both sold.
Buyers clearly felt the quality went hand-in-hand with commercial prospects and after the traditionally cautious start the deal flow took off on the first Sunday  in a way that caught many by surprise. Business trickled into life when Paramount and billionaire industrialist Steven Rales’ ambitious new finance and production house Indian Paintbrush partnered on worldwide rights to Drake Doremus’ romance Like Crazy. Shortly afterwards, Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate closed a US deal for JC Chandor’s widely admired financial crisis thriller Margin Call.
The action barely let up as buyers headed into an anticipated evening session. Fox Searchlight made the first of at least four buys in Sundance, taking most of the world to Homework, while the Weinsteins and Ron Burkle – the man who unsuccessfully tried to help the brothers buy back Miramax – stumped up $6-7m for My Idiot Brother, the Paul Rudd comedy from Big Beach and Likely Story that was regarded as the most obviously commercial film heading into Park City, although in the end it drew mixed reviews.
The next day Searchlight added two more to its war chest, taking the world on Martha Marcy May Marlene and global remake rights to documentary The Bengali Detective. There were nine deals on Monday  and six in the next two days. HBO took remake rights to bare-knuckle fighting documentary Knuckle, which was at the centre of a feeding frenzy before the festival even started after a screener leaked out. Magnolia and Participant teamed up on the New York Times documentary Page One; Sundance Selects took the wildly popular doc Buck and IFC bought David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense and The Ledge.
On Sunday night  Kevin Smith delivered the moment of the festival when he duped buyers into attending the premiere of his horror film Red State with rumours of a rights auction to follow the screening. There was an auction, but it lasted less than 30 seconds as Smith “bought back” his own film for $20 (yes, that’s $20, not $20m) and revealed plans to self-distribute after talking emotionally about his desire to help filmmakers make money from their work.
Buyers continue to be cautious and the instant bidding wars of yesteryear are gone. The reps are prepared to take less up front if the marketing plan sounds smart, while savvy buyers are generally reluctant to pay a lot. There are exceptions: a flush Weinstein Company paid a lot for My Idiot Brother and two days later shelled out an $7.5m MG and pledged $10 in p&a for The Details. But the awareness among the sector that splashy deals don’t necessarily result in box office success has begun to percolate into the minds of the filmmakers, who now understand that a distribution deal doesn’t necessarily mean big bucks for them.
In fact in the independent space it often means little or no bucks, which was Smith’s point. Others might agree. John Sloss stood in the sidelines during Smith’s heartfelt diatribe and must have recalled how last year he self-released Banksy’s Oscar nominated documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop in the US, which grossed $3.3m in theatres. Jose Padilha pulled off the biggest self-distribution deal of all time in Latin America and possibly anywhere when he released Sundance 2011 entry Elite Squad 2 in Brazil last year. It amassed around $70m – a record for any release in Latin America, let alone Brazil, that towers over the achievements of Avatar and the Harry Potter films. A domestic deal had not closed at time of writing.
Just as distribution paradigms are shifting, so are financing models. Matthew Lessner’s New Frontiers entry The Woods wouldn’t have happened without the crowd-sourcing facility Kickstarter.com. Nimble sales agents and distributors are exploring these and other avenues and one can be sure that filmmakers are educating themselves, too, especially the 1.7m followers of Kevin Smith on Twitter.
Smith singled out Lionsgate during his attack on marketing expenses and said the mini-major routinely allocated $20m p&a on its big releases. Sometimes though, an allocation like this pays dividends and Lionsgate has had its share of hits. On Wednesday it plunked down a substantial seven-figure sum for Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double, featuring a breakout role by Britain’s Dominic Cooper. The distributor foresees an Oscar campaign down the line and most likely won’t hold back on promoting what it believes to be a genuine contender.
Sundance 2001 deals through Jan 26
Date Distributor Film // rights // amount [MG/p&a] // (seller)
Jan 23 Paramount Like Crazy // ww // $4m / 7-figure p&a (UTA)
Jan 23 Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate Margin Call // US (UTA/Cassian)
Jan 23 Harvey Boys Red State // $20
Jan 23 Fox Searchlight Homework // ww // $4m (ICM)
Jan 23 TWC, Ron Burkle My Idiot Brother $6m // $15m (UTA)
Jan 24 IFC The Ledge // US // low-7 // (Preferred Content/Cassian Elwes)
Jan 24 HBO remake Knuckle (CAA)
Jan 24 Mickey Liddell Silent House // most ww // $3m / $3m+ (CAA)
Jan 24 Fox Searchlight Martha Marcy May Marlene // ww // (UTA)
Jan 24 Fox Searchlight ww remake The Bengali Detective // (Andrew Hurwitz)
Jan 24 Sundance Selects Buck // NA // (Submarine)
Jan 24 Participant Circumstance // NA // Mid-high 6 figs (Paradigm)
Jan 24 National Geographic US Life In A Day
Jan 24 Magnolia, Participant Page One // US // (Submarine)
Jan 25 SPC The Guard // US, LatAm // 7 figures // (UTA)
Jan 25 TWC The Details // $7.5m / $10m // Summit // (CAA /UTA)
Jan 26 Fox Searchlight Another Earth // English-speaking // (WME/Preferred Content)
Jan 26 Lionsgate The Devil’s Double // NA // seven figures / substantial (Paradigm/CAA)
Jan 26 IFC Perfect Sense // US // (WME)
Jan 26 Magnolia I Melt With You // (UTA)