The Sundance Film Festival, held every January in Park City, Utah, attracts 45,000 film-makers, buyers, distributors, agents, celebrities, journalists, movie buffs and wannabes. This year 125 pictures were showing, all hoping to recreate the success of last year’s Sundance smash Little Miss Sunshine. Fox Searchlight bought the comedy at last year’s festival for $10.5m (€8m), and it has since been nominated for four Academy Awards.
Having failed to get either of his two previous films, including the Oscar-winning One Day in September, into the festival, John Battsek, the producer at Passion Pictures, was at Sundance this year to shout about In the Shadow of the Moon, My Kid Could Paint That and Crossing the Line. This is the Monocle diary of his deals:
The opening of Sundance is a huge fanfare. Geoff Gilmore, director of the festival, made an impassioned speech about how Sundance is serious about film. The underlying message: it doesn’t want to be known as the party festival any more.
The consensus on the opening film Chicago 10, produced by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, is that it wasn’t nearly as good as it could and should have been. There was a lot of hype, a good director (Brett Morgen), a good cast (Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Nick Nolte). It’s a fantastic story with amazing characters and some of the best archive footage I’ve ever seen – all of which is sadly undone by its undisciplined two-hour running time.
It’s repetitive, noisy and frustrating. This film needs another three months in edit. On leaving, I got a text to say our films were on the cover of Daily Variety.
At this stage, any movie is a hot ticket because it could be The One. Director Dan Gordon from Sheffield in Britain was so committed to Crossing the Line, he walked around day and night wearing an “I Crossed the Line” T-shirt. The average outdoor temperature in Park City in January is about freezing point.
As a producer looking to sell distribution rights, there are two Sundance strategies: one is to show your film pre-festival so buyers can steal a march on their competitors. The other is to keep the film under wraps and surprise people. We entered the festival with a big splash because we had already sold North American TV rights for two of our films. Crucially, theatrical rights remained available for My Kid Could Paint That (child prodigy painter with an alleged interfering father) and In the Shadow of the Moon (an Apollo astronauts documentary).
I woke up remembering buyers going crazy for our In the Shadow of the Moon screening the night before. A good way to wake up.
We screened My Kid Could Paint That in the morning to a great reception. Buyers barely waited for the film to finish before making big offers. Politics followed the initial excitement: juggling competitors as they persuaded us they were the right people to get full houses to watch our film.
Distributors were grabbing me in the street, trying to persuade me to let them buy our films! Heavyweight players telling you they can make your film a smash hit is, to say the least, compelling.
All the big deals at Sundance are done behind closed doors, in rented condos. We are camped in CAA’s [Creative Artists Agency – one of Hollywood’s top talent agencies]. In Suite 103, we were selling In The Shadow of the Moon; in Suite 204 My Kid Could Paint That.
You couldn’t make this up: a procession of distributors were being led in and out to pitch themselves between our two floors. By 03:00 we were down to a few candidates for both.
At 04:20 Sony Pictures Classics were in pole position for Kid and ThinkFilm wanted Moon. In both cases, these guys clearly loved our films, wanted our films and wanted to make our films a big success. We got word that a certain aggressive, controversial and successful New York distributor wanted preview DVDs. We weren’t going there. We closed at 04:30, and $1.8m and $2m later Kid and Moon had proud new owners. [Variety’s 22 January 2007 issue said: “ThinkFilm laid down $2m for In the Shadow of the Moon, outbidding Warner Independent and several other buyers. And child-prodigy documentary My Kid Could Paint That drew approximately $1.8m from Sony Classics.”]
I went to bed buzzed, wired and a little bewildered.
I had no chance of sleeping after the immensity of the night before, so I kept the buzz by watching the Joe Strummer documentary, The Future Is Unwritten. I loved it.
There are still 20 parties a day here although the whole mega-celeb madness of a couple of years ago has been toned down a bit. Parties-wise, the main street parties suck: noisy, sweltering rooms crammed full of people you’ve been talking to all day. Harvey Weinstein [ex-Miramax star-producer, now of The Weinstein Company] still holds court at Sundance. Other than Harvey the main player is always Miramax, which means my brother, Daniel Battsek.
They had their own film, Eagle Vs Shark, to sell – it was a disappointment for me, but everyone else seemed to love it. Miramax were watching everything like a hawk: no one wants to miss out on that one big film that can kill at the box office.
A horror movie about a woman with a man-eating vagina, written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein. Sold to the Weinstein Company with Lionsgate for a reported $4m (€3m).
In the Shadow of the Moon
Surviving Apollo crew members tell their story in a documentary directed by David Sington. Sold to Think Film for $2m (€1.5m).
Son of Rambow
Two British boys in a modern day Huckleberry Finn-style adventure. Written and directed by Garth Jennings. Paramount Vantage eventually bought it for $7.75m (€6m).
The Devil Came on Horseback
A great and timely documentary about Darfur, directed by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern.
This documentary was a real talking point. An obsessive, real-life love story and potential festival prize winner, produced and directed by Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens. Sold for $500,000 (€390,000) to Magnolia Pictures.
Eagle vs Shark
This deadpan comedy, directed by Oscar-nominated Taika Waititi, could be the next Napoleon Dynamite. Sold pre-festival to Miramax for an undisclosed low figure.
Daniel Battsek, Miramax president, explains why he did not reach for his chequebook this year.
“Sundance is a feeding frenzy and it takes a strong will not to get caught up in the maelstrom. This year I simply didn’t see anything good enough to merit the prices. There were decent movies, but ultimately I decided that they weren’t commercially viable. The real judgement as to whether I am right or wrong will be when these movies come to be released… by which time everyone bar the studio’s accountants will have forgotten how much they cost.”