Some cold, hard facts from Sundance

By Anne Thompson

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) – Official prizes at
the Sundance Film Festival won’t be handed out until Saturday
night, but plenty of executives are already heading back to Los
Angeles and New York — either to toast their victories or tend
to their wounds.

As the annual mountain-high clash of arts and business
draws to a close, here are some of the truths that emerged at
this year’s edition of success, lies and high-def video:

BELIEVE THE HYPE.

Sure enough, the edgy family road comedy “Little Miss
Sunshine” was all that the insiders promised and more.
Hollywood was buzzing about the movie in advance of the fest:
The Michael Arndt script had been kicking around for years; the
video and commercial directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie
Faris clearly were talented; and their ensemble was strong.

The movie looked so good on paper that it begs the question
why a distributor didn’t just take it off the table and make it
instead of risking losing the movie in a bidding war. There are
two answers: Steve Carell, a member of its ensemble cast,
became a serious headliner only after he hit it big with “The
40-Year-Old Virgin.”

And distributors were afraid that the film was too
execution-dependent: Why not let someone else take the risk and
see how it turned out? In the end, it cost Fox Searchlight,
which needed a big hit after a slow year, more than $10 million
to win the bidding war on the $8 million indie.

GOOD PRODUCERS MAKE BETTER MOVIES.

Many of the fest’s most popular titles came from
established producers with a track record of delivering quality
films and the ability to raise indie financing when they can’t
get studio backing.

“Sunshine’s” producer heroes were Ron Yerxa and Albert
Berger (“Bee Season,” “Election”), who stuck with the script
for some five years. “We knew Michael Arndt when he was Matthew
Broderick’s assistant on ‘Election,”‘ Berger recalls. They sent
the script to Deep River’s Marc Turtletaub and David Friendly,
who optioned the screenplay. Berger and Yerxa had wanted to
hire directors Faris and Dayton “forever,” Berger says. Focus
Features came close to making the movie, but when Focus
withdrew, Turtletaub financed the movie through his new
company, Big Beach.

Similarly, when Michael London (“Sideways”) couldn’t get
studio backing for “The Illusionist,” Neil Burger’s period
romance starring Edward Norton as a magician, he turned to the
financier of last resort in Hollywood, real estate mogul Bob
Yari (“Crash”), who, while he makes the production process
miserable for many filmmakers, at least gets the movie made. At
festival’s end, London, who also produced “The Family Stone,”
was in mid-negotiations with Universal Pictures for a
mainstream studio release.

Festival opener “Friends With Money” came from indie vets
Ted Hope and Anthony Bregman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind”), who gave Nicole Holofcener the time and money to go
home and write a script. Veteran producer Jeremy Thomas (“The
Last Emperor”) assembled foreign money to make Michel Gondry’s
“The Science of Sleep,” starring international marquee draw
Gael Garcia Bernal, and that film yielded a hefty domestic
sale, $6 million, to Warner Independent Pictures.

FESTIVAL DEALMAKING IS LIKE PLAYING POKER.

Warner Independent Pictures president Mark Gill (who
learned the niceties of Sundance dealmaking from his old
Miramax boss, Harvey Weinstein) landed “Sleep” because he
stepped into the negotiation aggressively, laying down such a
high bid that it drove the other bidders out of the game.
Instead of topping WIP’s bid and staying in the negotiation,
Focus — which had released Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine” —
folded its hand.

CONTROVERSY SELLS.

Veteran documaker Kirby Dick knew what he was doing when he
went after the MPAA ratings board in his documentary “This Film
Is Not Yet Rated”; lots of press ink flowed, drawing attention
for his film, which he cleverly submitted for a rating before
it was finished. Because it was full of risqu© material, it,
too, got rated NC-17. Now he’ll have to submit his final cut
for another rating, the MPAA says.

Similarly, Bob Goldthwait’s “Stay” centers on a provocative
taboo; audiences flocked to see the comedy and laughed their
heads off. And bringing former Vice President Al Gore to
Sundance to warn about global warming drew standing-room-only
crowds to “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Many other documentaries were unable to draw sufficient
attention or were simply too narrow-cast to be considered
commercial theatrical fodder. Although distributors were in the
hunt for the next “March of the Penguins” or “Enron: The
Smartest Guys in the Room,” by festival’s end only “Wordplay”
had sold. The other hit of the festival, the Sudanese refugee
documentary “God Grew Tired of Us,” will likely go to ThinkFilm
as long as its complex rights issues are sorted out.

“Despite the expanded media attention and increased
commercial possibilities for docus,” ThinkFilm distribution
chief Mark Urman says, “there were fewer docus that indicated
theatrical release than in years past.”

SUNDANCE IS ALWAYS A CRUCIBLE FOR NEW TALENT.

First-time directors to emerge at this festival with real
careers include: “Sunshine” filmmakers Dayton and Faris, who
will now be able to write their own ticket in Hollywood; New
York University grad and Sundance short director Ryan Fleck,
director of “Half Nelson”; author-turned-director Dito Montiel,
who brought authenticity and passion to his autobiographical “A
Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”; Mark Dornford-May, who
earned raves for his innovative spiritual treatise “Son of
Man”; Chris Gorak, who delivered a terrifying scare with his LA
horror flick “Door”; and Joey Lauren Adams, who moved from a
stalled acting career to assured writer-director of “Come Early
Morning,” featuring Ashley Judd’s most powerful performance
since her 1993 Sundance debut, “Ruby in Paradise.”

Actors who popped at the festival include British charmers
Simon McBurney (the gay husband in “Friends With Money”) and
Joel Edgerton (“Kinky Boots”); Abigail Breslin (“Sunshine”),
who had appeared in several Disney movies, including “The
Princess Diaries,” and could prove to be the next Dakota
Fanning; Russell Hornsby, who plays an innocent black man
released from death row who wreaks his revenge on the white
D.A. who put him there in “Forgiven”; “Cargo’s” Daniel Bruhl,
an exciting young German star (“The Edukators”) who spoke
flawless English as the frightened rookie crew member on a
voyage of the damned; Melinda Page Hamilton, who plays the
woman with an embarrassing sexual secret in Goldthwait’s
“Stay”; Hadjii, the charismatic director-star of “Somebodies”;
Channing Tatum as a volatile tough guy in “Recognizing Your
Saints”; Shareeka Epps as a sensitive high schooler in “Half
Nelson”; and Alice Braga in the sexy Mexican film “Solo Dios
Sabe.”

AND THEN THERE ARE THE BELLY-FLOPS.

Sad but true. Movies that didn’t score with fest crowds
include Paul Fitzgerald’s sincere out-of-nowhere drama
“Forgiven”; “Hawk Is Dying,” starring Paul Giamatti, which
inspired walkouts; Terry Zwigoff’s tonally flat “Art School
Confidential”; and Finn Taylor’s episodic noncomedy “The Darwin
Awards.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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