As Sundance Winds Down, A Buyers Market For Small Distributors: Fleming Analysis

You can tell that Park City is being returned to the skiers by the fact that street traffic on Main Street was as thin as the air here today. The Sundance acquisitions marketplace is winding down, and the deals dropping are the smaller ones. Most execs are back in New York and L.A, and sellers are scheduling distributor screenings for films that haven’t yet sold. Buyers told Deadline at the start that 2012’s pace of big deals has been much slower than last year. Many of the expected big movies were less commercial than buyers hoped. Though more than one buyer has labeled the festival “dismal,” sellers still feel that most of these titles will find homes. But as these press releases are dropping, we’re at the point where smaller distributors have swept in with low offers for movies they can live without. Some of these films might get a small theatrical release, but a lot of them will be released on VOD.

Both buyers and sellers are still pondering the potential and pitfalls of this coming onslaught of VOD titles on cable systems. After Margin Call, will theater owners make their screens available on films playing on TV, and will they demand higher splits? Will talent and filmmakers accept having their features play on TV? One buyer brought up a great point, predicting that many VOD pictures will be retitled, especially if the title falls far down the alphabet. That’s because VOD menus on cable are alphabetized. Sundance’s boldest VOD play so far, Arbitrage, would fare better if retitled Aaarbitrage. There are already long lists of VOD titles offered on cable systems, with a lot of crap to sift through to find the good stuff. Everybody feels that Apple and other internet-ready TVs will streamline the VOD world, but there are so many unanswered questions and there will clearly be bumps along the road. But this is clearly the future for indie films; many of these films simply don’t justify P&A spends.

The festival was not without some aggressive proactive festival deals: the $6 million Fox Searchlight paid for The Surrogate and the deal for Beasts of the Southern Wild; the $2 million CBS Films paid for The Words, the $2.5 million Lionsgate and Roadside paid for Arbitrage, the Sony Pictures Classics deal for Celeste and Jesse Forever and Searching for Sugar Man, the $2 million deal by Focus Features on For A Good Time, Call…, LD Entertainment’s buy of Black Rock, Magnolia’s deal for The Queen of Versailles and Millennium Entertainment’s deal for Red Lights, rumored at $4 million.

Early on, sellers cited “The Harvey Factor” as a major indicator of how deal making would go. Despite coming to Sundance with his new VOD division heads Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, Harvey Weinstein has so far been a non-factor. Days ago, a report said he’d bought the Stephen Frears-directed Lay the Favorite. At that time, The Weinstein Company had pulled a $2 million offer off the table for a VOD-centric release, because the sellers wanted almost twice that. It put the film at a disadvantage because everybody here thought it sold; I would not be surprised if that plays into TWC’s favor, and they make the deal close to that low VOD bid, which isn’t a lot of dough for a movie that is directed by Stephen Frears and has a cast that includes Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Weinstein, who made the biggest festival deals last year, came in determined not to overpay, and that has driven down prices for almost all sellers by eliminating the urgency that was there last year.

Film deals will continue through the weekend and beyond. The Midnight section has created several deals and buyers are looking hard at some Next Section fare: interest is high on the sexy Chris Messina and Marin Ireland-starrer Twenty-Eight Hotel Rooms and I Am Not A Hipster; the edgy Bachelorette has action, as does Julie Delpy’s 2 Days In New York; so does Safety Not Guaranteed, Simon Killer (IFC is gobbling up that one, its third since last night, not counting Sundance Selects’ How To Survive A Plague), Nobody Walks, Luv, and Smashed.

I would argue that buyer restraint is a good thing for the indie business in the long run. The margins are razor thin on most of these films, and it’s never good to see distributors piling up the losses.  Many of last year’s titles underperformed and the biggest ticket film, The Details, hasn’t even come out yet. Some buyers feel that at this time next year, it will be clear that a few deal makers did overpay. The boldest bet came from Fox Searchlight with its $6 million worldwide rights deal for The Surrogate. Many who saw it say there are potential Oscar performances by John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy. But you can’t rely on that.

Fox Searchlight started Toronto last fall by making a gutsy play for Shame, a terrific NC-17 movie that everybody felt would be powered by a Best Actor nod for Michael Fassbender, and maybe Best Picture and Director. None of that materialized and now, Searchlight has to soldier on with a film that has grossed $3 million, but came with a contract that prohibits any cuts. What is the future for an NC-17 film on DVD and VOD?

Millennium Entertainment’s acquisition of Rampart also came with high hopes for an Oscar nom for Woody Harrelson, and Cohen Media Group’s Toronto deal for the Luc Besson-directed The Lady entered the Oscar race with hopes of noms for Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis. Besson shouldered the cost of releasing the film, to shine a light on Burmese democratic reformist Aung San Suu Kyi. Oscar love would have helped the film’s cause.

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