Jeremy Kay analyses the deals from Sundance — including the $6m deal for The Surrogate [pictured] and looks ahead to Berlin’s European Film Market.

Cautious optimism remains the name of the game in the independent sector, a consensus mindset in a post-crisis environment where the business is in dramatic flux. It was written all over Sundance, where buyers took time to mull over offers and continue to do so, generally refusing to plonk large sums of money on the table.

The wildcard was VoD. Digital has been a necessary part of the distribution conversation for a while and it was embraced in Park City, both as an adjunct to the theatrical component and in digital-only deal-making. It will, however, take time to figure out viable price points between buyers and sellers.

“It is a much more thoughtful process on the part of the buyers and sellers,” Kevin Iwashina of Preferred Content says, “because we don’t have the historicals you have with DVD and theatrical. It’s taking an extra moment for buyers to understand and evaluate the titles.”

IFC Films settled into the digital world years ago and has the ability to release across theatrical and digital platforms. The company’s acquisitions chief Arianna Bocco was busy during the festival, acquiring the Borderline collective’s psychodrama Simon Killer from UTA and Josh Radnor’s crowd-pleaser Liberal Arts from Gersh, as well as How To Survive A Plague (for sister label Sundance Selects) from Submarine.

Speaking of Submarine, the sales company was on fire at Sundance from the first days of the festival. By the first Friday (January 20), it closed deals with Sony Pictures Classics (SPC) on Searching For Sugar Man and Magnolia on The Queen Of Versailles, two opening night documentaries. Many other Submarine sales followed in the coming week and a few more look likely.

“We have had a lot of docs and they’re generally lower budget than features and you have the ability to get to recoupment or 50% of recoupment from the North American deal, so it’s easier for the producers to say yes,” Submarine partner Josh Braun says. “Buck and Page One are docs that played at Sundance last year and made seven figures at the box office, so if distributors feel they can do something with [a film] they are pursuing it aggressively.”

On the fiction front, Josh Braun and his colleagues Dan Braun and David Koh sold North American rights on Katie Aselton’s Black Rock to Mickey Liddell’s new venture LD Distribution for low seven figures. Two days later, Submarine concluded an international rights deal with Elle Driver.

By the final Sunday (January 29), Magnolia was the most prolific buyer, snapping up rights to The Queen Of Versailles, 2 Days In New York (CAA), Compliance (Cinetic) and Nobody Walks (Submarine); Genre division Magnet picked up V/H/S (WME Global).

The action had kicked off properly on the previous Sunday (January 22) when it emerged that CBS Films had acquired North American rights from CAA and Untitled Entertainment to Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal’s feature directorial debut The Words starring Bradley Cooper. Less than 24 hours after a packed buyers screening, CBS paid $3.5m in a deal that included a $1.5m promotional commitment — money that will go a long way with spots on CBS national and affiliate stations.

The other big buy of the festival was Fox Searchlight’s $6m swoop on worldwide rights to Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate, arguably the film of the festival starring John Hawkes as a polio victim who hires a sex surrogate in a bid to lose his virginity. Several other crowd pleasers sold, including Robot & Frank, Celeste And Jesse Forever and For A Good Time, Call… (see box, right).

Roadside and Lionsgate teamed up on the $2.5m acquisition of Arbitrage, Nicholas Jarecki’s compelling drama starring Richard Gere as a fraudulent fund manager. The partners plan a theatrical and VoD release, echoing what they did on JC Chandor’s Sundance 2011 entry Margin Call. That day-and-date model earned roughly $5m in theatres and $5m on VoD and the consensus seems to be neither cannibalised the other (and Chandor landed an Oscar nomination for original screenplay).

The Weinstein Company picked up US rights to Stephen Frears’ Lay The Favorite and plans theatrical and VoD support, bringing into play new hires Tom Quinn and Jason Janego of the multi-platform division RADiUS-TWC.

“It is amazing how independent digital distribution companies are getting the attention that was once reserved for well-capitalised companies that are buying digital rights like the IFCs and Magnolias of this world,” GoDigital CEO Logan Mulvey says. “People are starting to get comfortable with the profit and loss model on digital. If they know you can reach 100 million homes in North America, it means more than getting a $25,000 advance and no back-end.”

Several US-based international sales companies were also on the ground. Myriad Pictures acquired sales rights to Ry Russo-Young’s drama Nobody Walks and at press time buyers continued to circle Robot & Frank and Celeste And Jesse Forever.

That means all eyes at this stage are on Berlin. At time of writing, none of the tight-lipped sales agents had revealed new additions to their slates, though there were rumours the action project The Tomb featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone might be headed for the European Film Market. General consensus was that apart from several marquee titles from each of the heavy-hitters, the market would be on the light side.

Lionsgate sales chief Helen Lee Kim expected “business as usual” in the wake of the company’s merger with Summit. “I feel like it’s a really interesting time,” says Kim pre-Berlin. “There has been a lot of shifting around with people going off to do their own thing and finding financing available. As far as projects go, people are being careful.”

One new entrant is Lisa Wilson and Myles Nestel’s The Solution Entertainment Group, a company that marries capital sources with a sales business. “When people go out with projects, it really isn’t enough any more to be a sales agent because you’re competing against companies like IM Global and Sierra/Affinity who have the funds,” Wilson says. The company arrives at the EFM with two previously announced titles, Writers and Hector And The Search For Happiness.

Hyde Park International’s former sales chief Mimi Steinbauer has resurfaced with Radiant Films International, which will introduce buyers to the Tom Shadyac documentary I Am and Andrew Levitas’ romantic drama Lullaby. “On the financing and buying end, people are being careful what they choose and as we have seen in the last few markets, for the right product there’s absolutely the appetite and buyers will come up with the numbers.”

“Berlin is a little bit tricky in terms of the number of films ready because it’s just after the holidays and you have to get films packaged and prepared to come to market,” adds FilmNation’s Glen Basner, who is handling JC Chandor’s man vs nature thriller All Is Lost starring Robert Redford. “I always find it a challenge to find films that appeal to us creatively as well as economically. But the market in general continues to be stable.”

“If you find the right movies, the capital is there,” Nick Meyer of Sierra/Affinity says. “The markets are always fixed in the calendar but the DNA of movies doesn’t always suit the market. Last year at Cannes there was a lot of stuff that came together at the right time and there was a boom in US distribution. I don’t need Berlin to be as good as Cannes was last year; it takes time to get the soufflé out of the oven.”

“The year is beginning but there’s an unquestionable appetite in terms of buyers looking for the end of the year and 2013 especially,” says Alex Walton, president, international sales and distribution, Exclusive Films. “Your expectations need to be in line but there’s no question it’s a good market to sell if your product is good enough.”

Selected further Sundance deals (through Jan 29)

For a Good Time, Call… to Focus (Cinetic)

Celeste And Jesse Forever to SPC for North America, Latin America and Eastern Europe (UTA)

Beasts Of The Southern Wild to Fox Searchlight for US (WME)

Red Lights to Millennium (UTA)

Arbitrage to VVS for Canada (WME/Parlay)

Robot & Frank to SPWA and Samuel Goldwyn for North
America, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. SPWA has outside North America (ICM/CAA)

Chasing Ice to National Geographic Channel for TV rights (Submarine)

Wish You Were Here to eOne for North America (LevelK)

The Pact to IFC (Preferred Content)

Liberal Arts and The Imposter went to Revolver and Picturehouse jointly for the UK (Gersh and Hyde Park International represented Liberal Arts; Protagonist represented The Imposter)

Middle Of Nowhere to Participant and African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) for US (Paradigm)

Shadow Dancer to ATO Pictures for North America (CAA)

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present to Madman for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (Submarine)

Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap to Indomina for worldwide (UTA)

Safety Not Guaranteed to FilmDistrict (ICM/Cinetic)