sundance 2010The Sundance trophies have been handed out. The film crowd has left Park City to the skiers. So what kind of market was it? Better than expected, even if most of the deals were small ones. And compared to the zero that was Toronto, a veritable avalanche of very low 7-figure sales took place in Park City, with more expected in coming weeks. Some of the films have breakout potential, like The Kids Are All Right and the documentary Catfish. Others made great festival viewing, but questionable box office offerings. Buyers said they’d be surprised if any replicated the critical or financial success of last year’s Precious.

wintersbone_jThe only semi-sexy deal out of Toronto was A Single Man, which has grossed just $5.2 million since The Weinstein Co released it December 11th. This despite an engrossing story, strong acting, and gorgeous direction by Tom Ford, whose status as an iconic fashion designer helped sell the film. This 2010 Sundance offerings felt similarly small. Despite the manic deal-chasing by journalists like me, many of these films will likely play in art houses in limited release to elite audiences.

This was billed as the “new” Sundance festival under freshly installed director John Cooper. Even founder Robert Redford said the aim was to get back to indie basics. Buyers could have said the same. So many studio specialty divisions (aka faux indies) like Paramount Vantage, Miramax, Warner Independent Pictures, and Fox Atomic have shuttered. Overture became an open question during the fest. And The Weinstein Co is restructuring. Then again Summit Entertainment is showing interest, and Lionsgate is an eager but cautious player. So, too, a few companies I’ve never even heard of.

But, across the board, buyers are far more careful than in those drunk deal days when they overpaid for crazy films like Hamlet 2. Buyers this year told me they’d rather pass than overpay. And the closest thing to heated auctions came after the midnight screening of Buried, which Lionsgate bought for around $3.2 million for U.S. rights, and The Kids Are All Right, which went to Focus Features for nearly $5 million for U.S. and several offshore territories. But sellers and filmmakers were less concerned with M.G.’s than they were P&A commitments. VOD scenarios are growing, but still remain the consolation prize for films that don’t hook theatrical distributors.

Were things really that different, though? Some buyers felt that fest organizers this year were antagonistic to their needs. Screenings of acquisition titles overlapped others, forcing teams to split up rather than watch together. But some buyers and agents said organizers were smart not to turn every first screening of acquisition titles into high-pressure events. It was better for buyers to not rush, but rather to see films more than once and absorb the reviews. Others said they were put off by a set of rules distributed to buyers that made such stern admonitions as “Any kind of abuse, verbal or otherwise, of Theatre Managers and Staff will not be tolerated. Best case scenario, you will get a warning from Rosie. Worst case scenario, Rosie will confiscate your Sales Agent Credential.” Most buyers were insulted by the primer on how to behave.

One company on a roll at this Sundance was Cinetic Media, which sold The Kids Are All Right, brokered French territories for Holy Rollers, and expects to make a deal for Exit Through the Gift Shop, which wasn’t on the official program but screened at the Egyptian.

As for the agency scorecard, WME Global made three good deals on successive nights last week, selling (with CAA) Hesher on Wednesday, Blue Valentine on Thursday, and teaming with Wild Bunch to broker The Killer Inside Me deal on Friday. Sympathy for Delicious might be next.

The UTA Independent Film Group sold Buried and has bites on Douchebag, Welcome to the Rileys, Animal Kingdom, Restrepo, and Climate Refugees.

CAA brokered The Tillman Story and Twelve and co-repped Hesher. The agency will likely hook deals in the coming weeks for the popular doc Catfish and The Company Men, with both screening for studios. CAA is also closing a deal for Splice, once berthed at Senator before that company cratered. DVD should go to Sony, with an independent investor raising $20 million in P&A. Apparition or possibly Exclusive Media Group’s Newmarket is atop the distributor list. The multiplayer Splice deal is emblematic of the complex ways agents are brokering films these days as the indie biz hit bottom and now rebounds with fewer players.