Overall, film sales were down at Sundance 2008. And documentary titles accounted for about half of the distribution deals made this year. However, the real story for deal-making at Sundance may well be that Sony Pictures Classics, the bright-eyed indie wing of the 400 pound gorilla that is Sony Pictures, single handedly kept the festival a viable market for scrappy indie films in competition. Sony Pictures Classics does not have the success stories of, say, Fox Searchlight Pictures box office bonanza LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.
Purchased at Sundance 2006 for a record-breaking $10.5 Million, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE went on to gross close to $100 Million and won 2 Oscars. Smart buy. Smart marketing. In contrast, SPC purchased JUNEBUG at Sundance 2005, which earned next to nothing but did prove to be Amy Adam's breakout film and earn her an Oscar nomination. SPC's continued determination to acquire at Sundance is all the more remarkable for its past failures to capture the crossover success that Sundance legend lives one.
Just look at the breakdown of Sundance 2008 deals. Of the 9 feature films, 6 deals were made for distribution in the US. (1 of the deals was by United Artists who purchased the remake rights for the Spanish film TIMECRIMES, but have no plans to distribute.
) 2 of those 6 films (HAMLET 2 and HENRY POOLE IS HERE) played in the Premiere selection. So, of the 121 features in competition, 4 found a home, and for 3 of them that home is with the SPC (FROZEN RIVER, BAGHEAD, as well as THE WACKNESS).In many respects, SPC is keeping film acquisition alive at Sundance, choosing to shop the lesser know films and purchasing in quantity (all were had for around 6 or 7 figures), rather than looking for the headline grabbing big money deal. Indeed, I find it quaint and almost touching the way SPC handles Sundance. Its choices seem bracing and risky, even if they may be due to its buying strategy of avoiding bidding wars and looking for asking prices to drop as the fest wears on.
Bottm feeders SPC may be, but that does not change the fact that it is willing to court the wallflowers of the festival that nobody else wants to take for a spin, including this year's Grand Jury Price winner FROZEN RIVER. On paper this film has nothing going for it. Star power that falls well below your average TV Movie Of The Week (and that's Network TV); a downer subject that lacks sexy topicality -- illegal US border crossings from, wait for it, Canada. It's a nutty move, as are their two other fest buys.
THE WACKNESS got some festival buzz, but nobody was willing to go for the mat for it, perhaps because it clearly doesn't have a chance of becoming the next LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (although we should never underestimate the nation's love of the Olsen twin). SPC is making smaller deals for smaller movies to do, probably, small business. I sort of love it; I like the "think small" attitude towards independent film.
After all, isn't that the point, rather than go after the one Indie film that has a chance of crossover success, Sony is taking up a few wild cards and one day, they will make it to a theatre near year—if only for a week. I think if the Independent Spirit Awards had an award for Film Acquisition this year, it should go to SPC. The company's gamble on niche markets, on the oddball, on the rag-tag underdog has exactly the wild Indie spirit that the most successful Sundance films routinely champion--and that the biggest Sundance deals routinely lack.
Copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Lafleche.
Daniel Lafleche is the COO of IPEX TV, the leading multiplatform B2B Film and Video online marketplace. Daniel has over 25 years experience in film distribution, combining film and video licensing with internet media. IPEX TV specializes in helping indie producers and film and video distributors take advantage of the web and reach out to international film license buyers. You can learn more at http://www.ipextv.tv