The new realists

Times Staff Writer

Altitude sickness, skiing accidents and red wine hangovers aren't the Sundance Film Festival's worst health risks. More detrimental is festival fever, a potentially crippling ailment that causes otherwise stable Hollywood deal makers to grow disoriented while shopping for new movies.

Unlike past Sundance festivals, where vaults of money have traded hands at a frantic pace in the opening days, only a handful of deals were struck in this festival's first week, and none for more than $2 million.

The culprit this year is not so much the movies -- considered as good as those in any past lineup -- but rather their public screenings. In a twist of logic, the better a Sundance film has played in front of a packed theater, the more nervous its prospective buyers have grown.

"It's just bizarre the way people are buying movies," says William Morris agent Cassian Elwes, who, unlike other sellers this year, sold three Sundance movies in short order. "The buyers are not paying attention to how the audience is reacting. They are paying attention to their competitors and their cell phones."

There's a simple explanation for this phenomenon, and it's called "Tadpole." At last year's festival, the low-budget comedy about a young boy's affair with his stepmother's girlfriend rocked Sundance audiences, generating roaring laughter, sustained ovations and terrific word-of-mouth along Park City's crowded streets. It became the festival's hottest ticket, and the strong reception prompted a fierce (and nearly violent) bidding war, with Miramax purchasing it for a steep $5 million.

But when "Tadpole" was released in theaters, it crashed faster than Enron, grossing only $2.8 million.

The movie may have failed for several reasons, including misguided marketing, a subject that some found distasteful, and the film's unpolished look. Whatever the real reason, though, its costly collapse served as a warning signal: Sundance screenings are not to be trusted.

Not that Sundance film buyers haven't been cautioned before. In the past years, any number of movies stormed Sundance, sold for tons of money but turned in "Pluto Nash" business at the multiplex. The list of losers includes "The Castle," "Slam," "Happy, Texas" and "Girlfight." When Fox Searchlight was finalizing its bid this year for the disturbing drama "thirteen," the company intentionally tried to distance itself from the film's successful Sundance screening. Only until Fox Searchlight was confident that the film could also appeal to mainstream audiences did it offer $1.99 million for "thirteen's" distribution rights.

"The biggest mistake you can make up here," says Tom Ortenberg of Lions Gate Films, "is to fall in love with a movie because the audience does."

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The disconnect between audience and buyer

At this year's festival, audiences went wild for "Pieces of April" and "The Station Agent," yet neither movie sold in the three days after its first screening. (Miramax bought "The Station Agent" on Tuesday night for $1.5 million, but as of Thursday morning no deal had been announced for "Pieces of April.") "That never would have happened in the past," says ThinkFilm's Jeff Sackman. "Movies that popular would have sold in a day."

"Pieces of April" stars Katie Holmes in a comedy of a family coming together -- and almost falling apart -- over a Thanksgiving dinner. "The Station Agent" is the story of a withdrawn little person (Peter Dinklage) who is bequeathed a train depot and, when he moves into it, also inherits three new friends.

At both films, moviegoers have laughed until they cried, and cried until they laughed. And that makes Sundance buyers really edgy.

The distributors are doubly worried about "Pieces of April" because the film was made by the same company behind "Tadpole," has the same digital video coarseness and is being sold by the same lawyer, John Sloss. Several buyers say Sloss wants to sell "Pieces of April" for more than $5 million.

"But unfortunately, the weight of 'Tadpole' is on their shoulders," says David Dinerstein of Paramount Classics, who nevertheless is among the bidders for "Pieces of April." To Dinerstein, "April" is reminiscent of one of his own hits. "In some ways, 'Pieces of April' reminds me of 'You Can Count on Me,' " says Dinerstein, referring to Paramount Classics' Oscar-nominated 2000 film.

Still, ignoring audience reaction is nearly impossible here. Sundance acquisitions screenings, which can number more than five a day, are a film buyer's version of a sold-out rock concert.

The people looking to purchase distribution rights rush into theaters (occasionally cutting long lines to grab the best seats), some stuffing blank contracts into their day packs in case they need to make a quick deal in the lobby. The theater's mosh pit is made up of more than a dozen buyers' representatives, ranging from HBO to United Artists, all poised to strike.

The pressure is unrivaled. "It's a hothouse atmosphere," says Howard Cohen of United Talent Agency, at Sundance to sell several movies.

"People are here for 10 days with nothing else to do but look for movies to buy. That doesn't happen anywhere else," Cohen says. As a film unspools, buyers must make instant decisions about its critical and commercial prospects, judging not only its playability (is this film any good?) but also its marketability (can we cut a good TV commercial?).

Unless a third of the audience walks out in the middle of a film (as happened in the premiere screening of the street racing movie "Quattro Noza"), moviegoer reaction no longer is a key factor in the buying equation. Sundance patrons simply are not representative of the real world. They tend to like complicated, dark and often twisted tales of dysfunctional families. They can be spellbound by dramas of middle-aged ennui. And they will sit still pondering inscrutable allegories about the meaning of life. At a Saturday afternoon screening of the Danish movie "Open Hearts," the film was projected with its reels out of order -- and it still earned robust applause.

"These are die-hard film aficionados," says Artisan Entertainment's Amir Malin. "But that audience doesn't always translate into the reality of box-office business. When you're at a festival, you have to divorce yourself from what you see before you."

For the distributors, addicted to testing the movies they produce through repeated research screenings, losing this audience yardstick leaves them without a critical data point. But even if you forget "Tadpole" -- which Miramax wishes it could do -- history shows that festival patrons are almost a reverse indicator of a film's outlook. It's not a problem limited to Sundance; audiences at other festivals are equally unreliable.

Sundance audiences greeted 1998's "Gods and Monsters" coolly, yet it eventually to win an Academy Award and sell more than $6 million in tickets. The initial Sundance screening of 1999's "The Blair Witch Project" was equally lackluster. "A lot of people came out of the screening shaking their heads, saying, 'What the hell was that?' " says Artisan's Malin. "We were basically the only bidders on the film." "Blair Witch" went on to gross $142 million.

That's the bright side of misleading festival reaction. The dark part is when the audience loves a movie that has no appeal at sea level.

Sundance patrons adored 2000's "Two Family House," voting it the festival's prestigious audience award. "They went through the roof," Ortenberg says. "And that increased our enthusiasm for it." He should have curbed his enthusiasm. The movie bombed, barely grossing $1 million.

But can a buyer completely ignore Sundance reaction? "I actually like watching movies with audiences. It's better to see a movie up here than by yourself in a screening room," says Fox Searchlight's Peter Rice, who bought "thirteen" after his staff watched the film in a packed Sundance theater, where it was very well received.

"And if you have a comedy and it doesn't play here," Rice adds, "it's not going to play anywhere."

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