Sundance 2010: With ‘Buried’ and ‘Winter’s Bone,’ small films take over Park City

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The snow is piling up in Park City, Utah, almost as fast as the Sundance Film Festival’s unsold movies—especially among the festival’s most prominent titles. But a number of smaller, more personal films, along with one low-budget genre title -- are beginning to emerge as the talk of Park City.

The Ryan Reynolds thriller “Buried” screened very strongly in its late-night slot Saturday, as both specialty and studio buyers, emboldened by the success of “Paranormal Activity,” scouted the film.

Insiders said a deal for the movie – in which a civilian truck driver held for ransom in Iraq tries to escape a coffin using only his wits and a cellphone – could happen as early as Sunday evening. Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight and other high-profile studios sent executives to see the film, with the first two considered the frontrunners to land the picture (top executives from both companies were watching the movie in private screenings Sunday morning). With several effusive fan boy reviews, a multi-million dollar deal could be possible, making it one of the most lucrative sales of the past few years.

On a non-genre note, Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” a drama about a teenage girl’s search for her missing, meth-cooking father – generated some of the most enthusiastic talk after its screening Saturday afternoon at the Eccles. Though a number of buyers have cited the film as a title to watch, sales on movies of its ilk historically do not generate the overnight seven-figure deal; indeed, the title is said to be a perfect candidate for a smaller buyer – think “Frozen River” and Sony Pictures Classics -- that specializes in platform releases. Granik, who made the 2004 Sundance prize-winner “Down to the Bone,” would be looking for her second breakout at the festival.


In a similar vein, Drake Doremus’ romantic dramedy “Douchebag” has been equally popular among indie buyers after its strong premiere Friday. It’s been described by some as a smaller (much smaller) version of “The Hangover” and is engendering interest among a top tier of distributors, including Fox Searchlight.
In a nonfictional vein, the romance-in-the-digital age documentary “Catfish” – a film few had been discussing coming into the festival -- left many filmgoers mesmerized. While buyers were on the fence about whether the movie could sustain a broad theatrical release, they considered the Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman title a word-of-mouth darling that could have a long life on television and DVD.

Also on the doc side, Amir Bar-Lev’s Pat Tillman documentary “The Tillman Story” also earned solid reviews from buyers over the weekend, with sales agents saying that Tillman’s stature among a certain kind of Middle American filmgoer will aid the cause (though some of those filmgoers might not be thrilled to hear what the movie has to say about the actions of the U.S. military in covering up the Tillman killing).

Meanwhile, a host of bigger, star-driven titles yielded less generous reactions as they played over the weekend. The Mark Ruffalo-directed “Sympathy for Delicious,” the Kristen Stewart dramatic vehicle; “Welcome to the Rileys”; and the star-heavy “The Company Men” all earned skepticism among buyers, some of whom saw the star aspects of these titles as insufficient to overcome the film’s substance.

Sundance festival director John Cooper has been saying the fest is about getting back to its low-budget, discovery-minded roots. With the bigger movies faltering and smaller ones percolating, he may be onto something.

-- John Horn and Steven Zeitchik