In recent years, the majority of hot titles premiering at the Sundance Film Festival either find distribution deals in Park City, or shortly after when buyers and sellers return to Los Angeles before heading off to Berlin. The lack of bidding by Amazon Studios, Netflix and Fox Searchlight because each had few slate slots to fill has slowed the pace of deal making. But several and sellers and buyers told Deadline that doesn’t mean these films won’t find homes.
Deadline featured 24 films on its hot title list coming into the festival, and 14 of them have yet to sell. I can’t recall so many pics looking for homes, particularly given the casts and directors — among them are Ethan Hawke, Luke Wilson, Idris Elba, Paul Rudd, Danny McBride, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Peter Dinklage, Elle Fanning, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Hudson, Daisy Ridley. I’m told that several films are getting close to deals now. It’s also worth remembering that few of these films followed an easy path to production, so adversity is nothing new to the filmmakers.
One problem is that the financiers who watched films like Mudbound, The Big Sick and Patti Cake$ sell for eight-figure sums last year came in with heightened expectations. At the 2018 Sundance market, $5 million was the new $10 million, because there wasn’t that one must-have title like The Big Sick, because the streamers aren’t gobbling everything in sight, and because buyers are just far more wary in the shifting of the prestige business from theatrical to digital. The unrealistic expectations of film financiers has slowed the deal pace, but they are just going to have to get used to a new reality. No distributor wants to overpay, and more deals are being made in which the profit comes in success.
Robbie Brenner is the producer of one of those Sundance films, the fact-based drama Burden. Despite winning the Audience Award at Sundance in the U.S. Dramatic category, the Andrew Heckler film is still being pawed over by several potential buyers that I’ve heard includes Global Road. The film stars Garrett Hedlund as a rising KKK member who falls for a single mother (Andrea Riseborough), confronts his senseless hatred, leaves the KKK and is sheltered by an African American preacher (Forest Whitaker) when he’s threatened by his former white-sheeted hate-mongering comrades. The film also stars Usher Raymond and Tom Wilkinson.
Brenner is already counting her blessings. It was only 15 years ago that she became involved with Heckler and made promises to that couple and the preacher. They are still alive to see the film. She wasn’t as lucky when she agreed to shepherd the story of Ron Woodroof, the cowboy who came down with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club. In the 20 years it took to get that film made, Woodroof and other real life subjects had died by the time the film won two Oscars (including Matthew McConaughey winning Best Actor for playing Woodruff) and got a Best Picture nomination in 2013. In Burden, the only principal character who died was the one who played Burden’s angry KKK leader father figure (played in the film by Wilkinson).
“Like any independent movie, this had a million stops and starts, with every actor you can imagine being attached, and the financing coming together and falling apart,” she said. Once, the picture seemed on a smooth track until the financier went to jail. “We didn’t even have a lead actor until three weeks before shooting, when Garrett showed up and became Mike Burden, with all the quirks and tics. What we had as our anchor that kept us going all these years was Forest, who connected to the reverend character in 2006 and never stopped loving this story.”
Brenner said the Sundance audience response was overwhelming, and there was even a book set up about the characters in the movie that will be published when the film gets released. So why is the distribution deal taking so long?
“This is a dangerous, disruptive movie with a message of love and acceptance that had the audience applauding and totally into it at Eccles,” she said. “We’ve tested it and have seen how the faith-based audience has responded to it,” added Brenner, speaking like the producer she is. “We are confident that whoever bets on the film will see it pay off. But the instinct is to want things that are right down the middle, and take the easiest road. We don’t make movies for executives though, we make them for audience. And we are confident people will come in droves. It is a shame the place the world is in right now, where the message here becomes relevant and timely all of a sudden. The movie isn’t about politics, or Charlottesville or Trump or any of the things we got asked about in the Q&A at Sundance. It’s one man’s journey, and it’s about love.”
Endeavor Content and CAA are selling the movie together.