As the acquisitions crowd of buyers and sellers rolls into Park City tonight, there is heightened expectation that even more films will sell this time than at last year’s festival, when more than 40 films were bought. It is hardly a surprise to expect a brisk pace of dealmaking, but numerous buyers would be surprised if the numbers reach last year’s level.
Major distributors like Focus Features, The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Open Road and CBS Films are looking to round out their already full 2012 schedules with a couple of films, and a lot of smaller distributors and newcomers like Mickey Liddell will use the festival to build their slates. Distributors like Magnolia and IFC need product to churn through their VOD-centric releasing platforms, and same with Village Roadshow, Roadside Attractions, Anchor Bay and smaller distributors.
There is a Sundance catalog full of titles that didn’t come in with distribution, and the festival did a better job than ever keeping bootleg copies of the films from being slipped to buyers like in past years (password-protected online viewing gets the credit). That means acquisition teams will be seeing the films at the same time, which should ramp up the competition. And Margin Call‘s impressive showing as a day-and-date VOD title has some feeling that VOD-centric deals will become a major part of the dealmaking, particularly with former Magnolia execs Tom Quinn and Jason Janego attending their first Sundance since starting a VOD division for Harvey Weinstein. The majority of deals made at Toronto last fall were VOD-centric, and there is no reason we won’t see smaller films get gobbled up here.
So films will sell. But will buyers spend drunkenly?
Here are the factors buyers and sellers mentioned to me that could help determine how good this festival marketplace will be:
The Harvey Factor: Last year’s Sundance kicked off a strong acquisition year for Harvey Weinstein, and many believe it fueled strong buying not only here but at Cannes and Toronto. The fact that Weinstein had more face time on the Golden Globes than host Ricky Gervais, and three of his four films feted there were acquisitions, gives buyers hope that he will keep buying. “If Harvey Weinstein comes to buy, this will be a great festival,” said one seller. “Last year’s pace was directly attributable to Harvey making a few big deals.” TWC COO David Glasser, like several other buyers, promised to be disciplined: “Harvey does set the tone, but we’re not coming here to overbid or to find five films,” he said. “We’re looking for the two or so gems, and if we find the right picture at the right price, we’ll make a deal. We’ve learned a lot over the last three years, seeing what worked and what didn’t. The margins in this business are very tight and that extra million you overpay could have gone to marketing. We’ll bid numbers that will allow us to be here five years from now.” Let’s see what happens if Harvey decides he has to have one of those Sundance films, like he did pre-Cannes when he acquired The Artist.
The Big Buyer Contraction Factor: Some sellers were concerned about the uncertainty over big buyers. Lionsgate’s acquisition of Summit Entertainment eliminated one buyer, though sellers note that Summit usually sniffed but didn’t buy that many Sundance films. Relativity Media is in an uncertain situation with its financing; and when Bob Berney exited, FilmDistrict head Peter Schlessel set most of his big-ticket films with Tom Ortenberg’s Open Road. Does that mean FilmDistrict won’t buy and that Open Road won’t have to fill many slots? Schlessel tells me he will be at Sundance and will buy if the right film comes along. It isn’t a priority, though, because the company has a strong slate this year. The priority is to hire marketing and distribution executives and have them in place by Cannes.