Sundance: Buyers playing it safe

PARK CITY, Utah -- As the Sundance Film Festival shifts into high gear this opening weekend, a rocky divide has emerged between those swarming tony Park City: While some see the indie mecca as encouragingly varied, others say the festival's postmillennial slate is just plain erratic.

Buyers on both sides of the debate, however, agree that they'll be playing it safe again this year after the 2000 fest showed no signs of a phenomenon like "The Blair Witch Project," and even Sundance favorites that took top dollar and top prizes like "Girlfight" continue to have trouble finding much life outside the festival circuit.

And if you thought those pre-strike jitters would create a sure-fire feeding frenzy, think again: Many indie-type companies have had enough warning time to stack their slates and say they have no plans to over-buy only to fill the pipeline.

"I think this is a promising year in that it's eclectic and films don't fall into categories," Lions Gate Releasing co-president Mark Urman said. "What can be depressing is when there are too many trends packaged for the indie sector. This year, there are so many categories, genres, styles and shades that it's very exciting."

Another indie stalwart lamented: "Four years ago, when every picture was about incest, I wanted to kill myself! I think this year is a pretty cool festival."

One top acquisitions executive disagreed: "I'm not very encouraged by what's in the lineup. There's nothing I'm too excited about. I don't know that there are any good trends, besides a lot of weird stuff, and none of it looks like it will be anything. Then again, that's (a climate) when something can come out of nowhere and surprise everybody."

Aside from acquisitions, buzz is high about the future of Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore, who is widely rumored to be a front-runner to head the launch of Warner Bros.' specialty arm, Warner Classics. "It's a sad year heading in, because it looks like it is going to be Geoff's last year," a Sundance veteran said. Gilmore has been at the helm of Sundance since 1989.

Overall, buyers' buzz bins are filled with films that include built-in commercial appeal -- projects from proven talent, preferably with "name" casts.

Look for Michael Apted's World War II thriller "Enigma," Tom DiCillo's "Double Whammy" starring Denis Leary and Elizabeth Hurley, Alison Anders' "Things Behind the Sun," Bobby Roth's digitally shot "Jack the Dog," Timothy Linh Bui's "Green Dragon" and Richard Linklater's animated "Waking Life."

Another hot property is sure to be the Julia Stiles-Fred Willard-Stockard Channing starrer "The Business of Strangers" from director Patrick Stettner.

Lions Gate, in a pre-Sundance buy, snapped up domestic distribution rights to five digital films from InDigEnt, including Linklater's "Tape" and Bruce Wagner's "Women in Film."

Of course, movie stars and filmmakers with track records often arrive in Park City with distribution deals intact, cutting into the acquisition activity at the festival. So while festivalgoers are especially interested in the unveiling of new fare from Kasi Lemmons ("Caveman's Valentine," Universal Focus), Christine Lahti ("My First Mister") and Adam Brooks' Cameron Diaz starrer ("The Invisible Circus," New Line Cinema), the tension of a bidding war won't follow such projects.

"I think the availability of foreign money has made it easier for companies to actually get involved with pictures earlier," Artisan Entertainment executive vp acquisitions Patrick Gunn said. "There are less risks being taken, and we are not seeing many (projects) now available with big names."

According to buyers, the film with the highest curiosity factor is Richard Kelly's supernatural teen drama "Donnie Darko" starring Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Hart Sharp Entertainment this year is sending co-helmers DeMane David and Khari Streeter's inner-city drama "Lift" to the festival. The company's 2000 Sundance charmer "You Can Count on Me" is an Oscar hopeful this year.

Up-and-comer GreeneStreet also generated serious pre-Sundance sparks with Todd Field's directorial debut "In the Bedroom" starring Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei and Tom Wilkinson, produced in association with Good Machine International.

Additional films topping lists of standouts include projects with roots in the Sundance laboratories, which will give "Lift" and "Strangers" additional boosts. The word soon-to-be on Main Street is that Cory McAbee's lab project, "The American Astronaut," is being pegged by many as this year's "," representing one project with a good chance of cutting through the snow.

But even this year's potential standouts are not being pegged for eventual boxoffice breakthroughs. "At the end of the day," one top buyer said, "films like 'Bedroom' and 'Business of Strangers' are good art house films without much crossover potential."

Other executives, like Paramount Classics' co-topper David Dinerstein, caution that Sundance is measured by art and not commerce because the event is a festival, not a market.

"I think it's great that over the past couple of years, Sundance has focused more and more on becoming a film festival," Dinerstein said. "Because (I) really believe that this is a film festival and not a film market."

On the pre-strike front, indie film company chiefs say their buying habits won't be affected by the threatened writers and actors strikes.

"There has been so much anticipation and advance planning that people won't be caught needing to fill their release schedules," Gunn said. "But if there's not a strike, there's really going to be too much product out there."

But WMA Independent co-head Rena Ronson said: "We hope that there will be a stronger appetite for films to sell because of the anticipated strike -- I think everyone hopes that will be the case. And if they don't sell at the festival, there will be a lot more sales during the next six months once the dust has settled and the situation with the strike is more apparent."

Agent Victoria Wisdom said she does not expect this year's Sundance to be a contest of spending. "The huge bidding war is a relic of the past, as mini-majors are no longer looking at film festivals for distribution product because they have all become production entities," said Wisdom, a partner in the Becsy, Wisdom, Kalajian Agency, who has been attending the fest for the past 10 years. "They see film festival product as filling in their slate not leading it."

Oddly enough, producers agree that inflated buys can hurt all around. "I just want a good distributor who will stay with us," GreeneStreet's John Penotti said. "You're going to see some bigger buys this year, but I hope it's not crazy, because you don't want the 'Happy, Texas,' backlash."

Penotti referred to the comedy for which Miramax paid in 1999 a record sum for only to see it get buried at the boxoffice.

Speaking of Miramax, just when you thought it was safe to predict a staid Sundance, Harvey Weinstein is back. After being sidelined last year because of health problems, the Miramax co-topper is said to be looking to make his presence felt this year.