Will film buyers get grabby?

Times Staff Writer

The new indie film “What Just Happened?” is already generating some healthy buzz among distributors, a sure sign that the film-buying season is near. But as the writers strike drags on, the heat surrounding this Barry Levinson comedy and a handful of other coveted indies entering next year’s festival market just might reach nuclear levels.

At least, that’s the optimistic view among filmmakers. According to this theory, the writers strike seems likely to last a long time, pushing studios to grab promising material that’s ready to go. Some even speculate that the demand could be a boon to the foreign-film market as buyers look for inexpensive movies of quality.

That’s one view of the upcoming festival season. The other is that dismal box-office returns from a string of fall indies have made some buyers more cautious than usual about festival films. Some contend the market needs a cooling-off period after the glut. And there are lots of films on the way. So many, in fact, that some speculate the strike would have to last into the spring before panic sets in.

“The conventional wisdom is that the possibility of [strikes by actors and directors] will create greater demand for films at places like Sundance,” said attorney-producer John Sloss, who is representing “What Just Happened?” “You have to balance that with prevailing anxiety that this has been a really tough year for vanity films. In my mind, they’ve kind of cannabalized each other.”


Entertainment attorney Peter Dekom feels a push-pull in the market. “It’s too early for the strike to have an impact. And there’s a negative cast on independent films among buyers. . . . I’d love to see an aggressive indie market. But I think it’s wishful thinking because this is what has happened in past years.”

Until now, the writers strike has essentially been a TV strike. The Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off the buying season in mid-January, may be one of the first places to demonstrate its effect on the movie industry.

That festival’s slate isn’t announced until Nov. 28, but studio buyers are already assembling wish lists. “What Just Happened?,” a send-up of the movie business starring Robert DeNiro and Catherine Keener, and Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York,” are already considered must-sees.

Some distributors and studios have begun snatching up films early.

Summit Entertainment’s co-chair and chief executive, Robert Friedman, said he targeted the Rian Johnson crime drama “The Brothers Bloom,” which stars Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz, as a potential Sundance favorite and bought the movie this month to avoid the competition. Since September, Summit has also picked up the Christina Ricci fable “Penelope” and the 3-D documentary “Fly Me to the Moon.”

“Fireflies in the Garden,” the Texas family drama starring Julia Roberts and Willem Dafoe, won’t be shown to buyers until the Berlin film festival in February. But Senator Entertainment’s Marco Weber, whose company is producing and financing the film, wrote in an e-mail interview that the movie has already garnered interest from “every significant distributor in town.”

Overture Films has acquired four films this year: “Mad Money,” starring Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes; the DeNiro-Al Pacino crime thriller “Righteous Kill”; the Charlize Theron film “Sleepwalking”; and the dramatic comedy “The Visitor.”

Overture Chief Executive Chris McGurk said he hopes to debut at least one film at Sundance and pick up a few more.


“For four or five months, as the anxiety level has risen in the community and the anxiety level has risen at the talent agencies and the management agencies and law firms, all hoping to get things going pre-strike, there has been an enormous amount of pressure building from those sources,” McGurk said.

That tension and anxiety could very well translate into a robust market. At least that’s what producers and agents are hoping.

“It’s all a matter of degree,” said United Talent Agency partner Rich Klubeck, who represents two upcoming indies, “Synecdoche, New York” and “Babel” writer Guillermo Arriaga’s directorial debut, “The Burning Plain.” “There will be some natural pullback given the perception that the volume of films has caused some fall titles to underperform. But you’re talking about a strike scenario that’s unknowable and has slowed production faster than expected. I think that creates an opportunity for a very active market for finished films. People are going to be buying at least as much as they were last year.”

Cassian Elwes, co-head of William Morris Independent, speculated that the most aggressive bidding could come from smaller distribution companies like ThinkFilms and Overture that may not have the same stockpile of finished films as the major studios.


“There were very few films in Toronto that any distributors were excited about,” said Elwes, who brokered deals last year for “Grace Is Gone” (Weinstein Co.) and “The Signal” (Magnolia). “So there’s a pent-up enthusiasm to actually go find some movies that they can buy.”

The bidding on indie films has teetered toward hysterical in recent years. The cautionary tale is that of “Happy, Texas,” the 1999 comedy starring Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam that had enormous popular appeal, was acquired for $10 million by Miramax and then tanked at the box office.

But for every sob story, there’s a Cinderella tale. In 2006, Fox Searchlight broke that record by paying $10.5 million for “Little Miss Sunshine,” which famously went on to become a blockbuster and won an Oscar.

Sales were brisk at last year’s Sundance, with nearly a dozen films selling in just two days, each for almost $3 million or more. Paramount Vantage dropped one of the largest sums, paying a reported $7 million for “The Son of Rambow.” Many of those high-dollar buys -- Warner Independent’s “Introducing the Dwights,” Fox Searchlight’s “Joshua” and First Look’s “Dedication” among them -- were lackluster at the box office. One notable exception was Fox Searchlight’s “Waitress,” which the studio bought for a reported $5 million and has earned $21 million worldwide box office.


“Last January’s Sundance buying spree has proven to be fairly diastrous in the marketplace aside from Fox Searchlight’s one-two punch with ‘Waitress’ and ‘Once’ in May,” indie-film guru John Pierson wrote in an e-mail interview. “So if people are going hog wild before the ’08 fest, they’re nuts.”

But Pierson added, “There will be no caution. There is never any caution.”