Sundance2014_badge__140109214059__140116020608The Sundance Film Festival market gets underway tonight, and it could start with a bidding bang for Whiplash, seen here first as a short and now a feature starring Miles Teller as a drummer trying to survive his ruthless school band conductor (J.K. Simmons). Then again, buyers could find it’s not the second coming of Precious, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, or last year’s gem Fruitvale Station. It will still sell if that happens, it will just take longer, with its prospect for a meaningful theatrical release dimming with each passing day.

Park City Prepares For The Sundance Film Festival - 2014 Sundance Film FestivalMore than any recent year in memory, this Sundance program might well have been programmed by Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid screenwriter William Goldman, because of how the fest follows his famous adage about Hollywood that “Nobody knows anything.” It’s harder than usual to predict this fest’s breakout films because nothing jumps off the page as a can’t-miss. How does that make buyers feel? One buyer likened himself and his competitors as being like a bunch of old men on a beach, with shorts, black socks, and metal detectors, combing the sand for that diamond ring someone dropped amidst the beer can pull tops and other debris. “You’ve got to cover the whole beach or you’ll miss something,” he said. “On paper, a lot of these films have good casts and potential until you see them, get disappointed and find something in the little movie which has no stars, and is much harder to market,” the distributor said. “There are so many buyers here and so much competition, you really have to be on your toes and see everything.”

Related: 2014 Sundance: Fest Films With Highest Wanna-See From Buyers

frankThere is a sense of deja vu here for the number of past Sundance directors returning with projects (they include Zach Braff, Mike Cahill, Richard Linklater, Lynne Shelton, Gregg Araki and Jake Paltrow), but also because of programming decisions which seem to increasingly bring the fest back to its origins of prizing smaller left-of-center fare.

There are plenty of recognizable cast members in this lot, but their films come with a ‘yeah, but.’ Michael Fassbender’s Oscar nom this morning for 12 Years A Slave should drive his Sundance film to the top of buyer lists, especially since he plays the lead singer in a band, right? Yeah, but in Frank, Fassbender plays the role wearing a ceramic oversized mask that makes him look less like a handsome movie star and more like a relative of Jack from the Jack in the Box commercials. You’ve got sorely missed Saturday Night Live stalwarts Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader re-teaming in Skeleton Twins; yeah, but it’s a serious drama, with Hader playing her suicidal estranged brother as they come together to re-examine their lives after each has a near-death experience. As for hot genres, how about a vampire film that buyers can sink their teeth into? A Girl Walks Home At Night fits that bill and it was shot in Bakersfield, CA. But wait a minute, did Iranian helmer Ana Lily Amirpour really shoot it in Farsi language, subbing Bakersfield for Iran? Yup, she sure did.

Related: Sundance: A Look Back On How Last Year’s Acquisitions Fared At The Box Office

girlwThis unpredictability is the beauty of a festival originally designed to launch new voices, but it sure makes it hard work for buyers and sellers trying to harness those independent sensibilities into something that makes sense in a P&L statement and a P&A spend.

If there has been a consistent thread in my conversations with buyers and sellers, it is that the programming decisions by the Sundance team of John Cooper and Trevor Groth have made this a festival with deliberately smaller and less commercial films than was the case under the past regime led by Geoff Gilmore; some feel it has caused Sundance to diminish in that quiet competition for plum titles that exists between Toronto, Berlin and Cannes. Several sellers told me that where they once held pictures for Sundance, Toronto has become the favored place to launch a big splashy indie sales title. Berlin is too, especially if your film has global launch potential. Some feel the marketplace for indie movies is outgrowing the Sundance sensibility and that it is the result of festival organizers making a conscious choice to return to its roots as a haven for gloomy, uncommercial films that would be hard pressed to find an audience any other way.

skelThat said, there will be a ton of sales here. The major agencies each have come in with a dozen titles or more. In fact, several predicted that while it might take time, the sheer volume of buyers here will leave the shelves bare. “The promise of a digital future means that everything will get bought, but not like the old days when you could shift the risk to the distributor and take yourself off the hook,” said one seller. “On the other hand, the increasingly viable ways that you can watch indie films means there’s no reason every film here won’t sell in one way or another. That didn’t used to be the case. Now, the challenge for filmmakers is to make sure they are engaged in the decision making in areas like marketing, all the way through.”

While there were plenty of late-night auctions last year for films that included Fruitvale Station and Don Jon, the prediction is many of the deals for films here will take days and they will be reliant upon trade reviews and word of mouth. That wasn’t the case last Toronto; buyers went into premiere screenings of Can A Song Save Your Life and Bad Words bracing for battle; they were already crunching the numbers while they were exiting. Many of last year’s splashy Sundance sales didn’t crush it at the box office, either.

How can I knock the commercial prospects of the Sundance slate and then predict brisk sales? Here are the factors:

slaveThe Indie Business Is Flush. There’s a lot to like about the indie world now. Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture Oscars this morning, six were put together with independent money, including frontrunners American Hustle (Annapurna’s Megan Ellison), 12 Years A Slave (initially cash-flowed by Bill Pohlad’s River Road) and The Wolf Of Wall Street (fully financed by Red Granite); several were bought at festivals and the bulk of the major noms for acting, directing and scripting came from those films. Last year’s Sundance docu, 20 Feet From Stardom, got a Best Docu nom, the first for upstart distributor Radius-TWC. While Lee Daniels’ The Butler got skunked, its $167 million worldwide gross on a $30 million indie budget makes the film an indie success for the ages. Financiers are falling out of the trees, and agencies can’t package projects fast enough. While it might be an overstatement to say the indie business is at its zenith, it’s healthier than at any time since the sector crashed along with the economy several years ago. It also is the closest to a sellers’ market as has been seen in years, because of all the buyers. The exercise of getting prestige pictures financed has become much easier.

“If you are The Raid’s Gareth Evans or Steve McQueen or Spike Jonze, and you are not making exactly the kind of movie you want to make, with high-end talent, then something’s wrong,” said a top dealmaker. “It has never been easier, with the money, actor availability and distribution slots open that means you don’t have to through a development or green light process at a studio. It was a fight initially to get these movies made coming out of the financial crash several years ago, but now that people see an audience for Mud, Inside Llewyn Davis, All Is Lost and the others, financiers have a real appetite for the kind of movies that we all got into this business to make in the first place. Intelligent independent-minded films are thriving.”

harveyThe Harvey Factor. While there has been some published skepticism here that The Weinstein Company won’t be a big buyer because of its recent deal with Miramax, it’s just not true. That alliance will take years to bear fruit and might mean a movie a year and some TV projects. I always mention Harvey in these curtain raisers, because when aggressive, he creates a high tide, and all boats seem to rise. That means spending by others to keep up. “We absolutely have a big appetite coming in, and if we see another Fruitvale Station or 20 Feet from Stardom or Can A Song Save Your Life or Philomena that has a chance to be a commercial and critical success, of course we will be aggressive,” said TWC COO David Glasser. “We have slots to fill, just like everybody else here.”

schlesselThe Focus Factor. This is one concern voiced by all the buyers. This is the first Sundance in memory without Focus Features’ stalwarts James Schamus and Andrew Karpen, after Universal merged the label with FilmDistrict and left Peter Schlessel running it. The truth is, while Focus made a couple splashy deals with the Sundance buy of The Kids Are All Right a couple years ago and Bad Words at Toronto, the label always thrived on homegrown product. I’m persuaded that Schlessel and his new team come in with a wide palate and could walk away with three films or more, ranging from prestige fare to something genre from the Midnight program. Other upstart distribs like A24 have a chance to step into this Focus niche and fill a hole if there is one. And with all the appetite for indie films, how long before Karpen is up and running a new company, and Schamus if he cares to?

marginThe Multi-Platform Factor. Even when labels like Howard Cohen’s Roadside Attractions made breakthroughs with over-performing multi-platform titles like Margin Call and Arbitrage, actors and filmmakers resisted having their films appear anywhere but on the big screen. That’s not even an issue anymore, nor is the question of whether these guys are here to stay. Established multi-platform companies are getting more aggressive in chasing bigger titles, and a sign of maturity is that with companies like Roadside, Radius-TWC, IFC, Magnolia, A24 and Cinedigm less willing to settle for the small stuff, a new ecosystem has begun to emerge beneath them in the VOD space. Included in that is Amplify, the new entity that just started with the merger of GoDigital and Variance, with backing from Facebook’s Chris Kelly and founder Ed Ojdana; there is John Sloss’s Film Buff, which many feel will benefit from Cinetic’s hiring of vet IFC marketing wiz Ryan Werner; and Nolan Gallagher’s Gravitas, which just hired Roadside’s Dusty Smith. There are indications that Warner Bros’ Digital Group will exit the indie digital distribution space by the spring, to focus on bigger fare. That company had close relationships with Netflix, iTunes, Hulu and Google and small distributors relied on them for access to those portals. There is a niche here, even if the margins are smaller. “We are not looking at it as a consolation prize, but rather a proactive way to create awareness and business for these films in a cost effective manner,” said an insider in that space. What is encouraging about all this — and Ted Hope’s joining Fandor certainly rates a mention — is that instead of hoping viewers will search alphabetically through the PPV titles in major cable, more care will be taken to getting these tiny films some visibility.

sexlNow that we are through the numbers game, it’s worth a reminder that the festival belongs to the filmmakers who brave the cold, thin air to unveil their passion projects. Witnessing that moment of discovery, when an important new voice is heard the first time, is magic every time, since I first came to Sundance when Steven Soderbergh brought sex lies videotape, the film that really put the market part of this festival on the map. I leave the last words to two debut filmmakers who notched the two big 2013 Sundance deals, Fruitvale Station helmer Ryan Coogler and Don Jon helmer Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

coogCoogler, a wide receiver in high school and college, got noticed for his short films and wrote Fruitvale Station at the Sundance labs. He returned a year later for its festival premiere. “We hadn’t shown the film to a lot of people because to be honest we were just finishing it,” Coogler told me. “You have no idea how it will be received, even as you realize you’d beaten long odds to get this far. That first screening, I felt like I did before I played a big football game; my heart was pounding, I couldn’t eat. My eyes were wide as I watched people I didn’t know pour into their seats. Oscar Grant’s family was there and it was the first time they saw it. They’d been through such an emotionally intense tragedy and I tried so hard to make a movie where the audience could feel what it was like to be in their shoes. I was so proud that everybody stayed to hear what the family had to say. It was so emotional.” As for the bidding battle that took Coogler’s $90,000 feature to a north of $2 million deal with TWC? He called it surreal. “The WME sales team leading me through a whirlwind of meetings with distributors whose films I’d loved, and as for the auction, I’d heard those things happen sometimes, but I was really just happy people in that first screening liked it, and everything else was just way more than I expected. That the film had a theatrical run was a major blessing. It just came out on DVD, and it opened doors for everyone involved, whether behind or in front of the camera.”

donjonGordon-Levitt came in with different pressures. As an actor he’d been here many times for films. But Don Jon was meant to show he could be a writer and director as well. “Whether you’re me directing a movie or a kid showing his first short story to his parents, that leap into the fire is the beautiful thing about art and creativity and its ability to have human beings connect,” Gordon-Levitt told me. “Once you invite outside perspective, you’re always entering a world of pain, as Walter said in The Big Lebowski.” Gordon-Levitt said he wasn’t too worried about critics trying to pigeonhole him, because he’d come through that exercise once before. “You can’t cloud your mind with that actor stereotype because it’s not productive,” he said. “It happened after I finished 3rd Rock From The Sun and wanted to act in serious Sundance-oriented films. A lot of people gave me negativity and didn’t think I could do it, because they only saw me as the kid on the broad comedic sitcom. Luckily, I got a chance from some directors and I will be forever indebted.”

Gordon-Levitt is back this year with the first three episodes of hitRECord, a clever interactive TV series. It’s his eighth time back with a project, and he said it never gets old.

redf“Mr. Redford built this to create and nurture a community of filmmakers and filmmaking culture that was not driven by commerce, but instead by the love of making movies and bringing people together through the art of film,” Gordon-Levitt said. “That was decades ago but if you look at Ryan Coogler and how Fruitvale came through the Sundance labs, that shows Mr. Redford’s vision has endured. Everything started with the labs and the idea of taking these budding filmmakers with potential up to the mountains of Utah to work on their movies outside the constant pressure to be commercial and fit certain Hollywood formulas. It’s still incredibly inspirational to me, what Bob started, and Ryan is just the latest perfect example that this place is still doing what it does, as well as ever.”