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Sundance comes to terms with marketplace reality

Think it’s hard getting into Yale? Try the Sundance Film Festival.

With a college application acceptance rate of 7.5%, landing a chance to travel to New Haven, Conn., is a cakewalk compared to catching an invitation to Park City, Utah: For next January’s Sundance festival, 1,058 features were submitted for just 16 dramatic competition slots -- an acceptance rate of just 1.5%.

Consider the chances for Matt Weaver and Scott Prisand’s Corner Store Entertainment, an independent production company that snared two Sundance spots -- for Natalie Portman’s “Hesher” and Mark Ruffalo’s “Sympathy for Delicious.”

“I don’t think in our wildest imaginations,” Weaver says, “that we’d ever have two movies in the festival.”

Like other beat-impossible-odds producers who have been welcomed into the nation’s most prestigious film gathering, Weaver and Prisand know that making it into Sundance is only half the battle. The real test begins Jan. 21, when the 26th annual festival opens, as far more than the dramatic competition films look for a loving distribution home.

Even amid the accelerating collapse of the specialized film business -- since last year’s festival, Miramax Films and Senator Entertainment have faded away, and the lights are dimming at the Weinstein Co. -- several 2009 Sundance premieres enjoyed commercial and critical acclaim, buoying the hopes of 2010’s sellers.

Lionsgate snagged “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” soon after its Sundance launch, and the film is not only a minor box-office hit (domestic gross to date: $32.3 million) but also a lock for a best picture Oscar nomination. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the Sundance premiere “An Education,” which has grossed a respectable $5.6 million in limited release and has attracted countless accolades for star Carey Mulligan. And the Sundance documentaries “The Cove,” “Burma VJ” and “Sergio” were all shortlisted for the documentary Oscar.

Yet many of the last festival’s more celebrated deals were far less successful, and many Sundance movies were either never sold or were bought for insignificant sums (and never made it to theaters) in deals sewed up months after the festival concluded.

Fox Searchlight bought “Adam” for $1.5 million, and it sold less than $2.3 million in tickets. Lionsgate paid $2 million for “Winning Season” (which is still on the shelf), now-defunct Senator purchased “Brooklyn’s Finest” for about $3 million (also gathering dust) and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group paid $2 million for “Black Dynamite” (domestic gross: $243,000).

“It’s definitely a more unnerving time, but I feel super confident about our movie,” says Lynette Howell, a producer of “Blue Valentine,” a drama about a marriage (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play the couple) that distributors say is one of Sundance’s hottest acquisition targets.

Howell said that even though many of the highest-profile distributors are no longer around -- Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse among the closures -- she believes there’s no diminution in the audience’s interest in highbrow works. Where the old companies once stood, new buyers like Overture Films and Apparition have emerged.

“It’s always better when there are more distributors out there,” Howell says. “But there are still people buying movies.”

Sundance’s top programmers -- headed by new festival director John Cooper, who was promoted from the lead programming position into the top spot previously held by Geoff Gilmore -- say the coming Sundance lineup is in part designed to reflect the upheaval within the art film world.

In past years, Sundance has been larded with a dozen and a half premieres, movies that typically have bigger budgets and more recognizable actors, with the attendant entourages. This year, there will be fewer such premieres, and Cooper and programming director Trevor Groth have created a new eight-movie category called Next dedicated to films with bare-bones production budgets under $500,000.

The festival also is eliminating its long-running opening night film ceremony, instead launching the festival’s competition a day early on Thursday night with screenings of the dramatic competition film “Howl” (with James Franco as Allen Ginsberg), the Afghanistan war documentary competition title “Restrepo” and a program of short films including a new work by director Spike Jonze. The festival also will take Sundance films and some of their creative talent to https://ttp://festival.sundance.org/2010/press_industry/releases/feature_2009-11-04-usa/ on Jan. 28, to call attention to movies that might be missed.

“We need to be part of the national dialogue about why film and art is important,” Cooper says.

Cooper and Groth say they want to make sure the 2010 festival remembers the Sundance mission, established by founder Robert Redford, of championing artistic excellence and originality. “Sundance helped to create the industry around independent film,” Groth says. With that business in disarray, he says, it’s critical to make sure the festival’s emphasis doesn’t waver.

In renaming the festival’s Spectrum category into Spotlight -- a new section that focuses more on great films from other festivals (the lineups for the Premiere, Next and Spotlight categories will be announced Thursday) -- Cooper and Groth are eliminating a platform for 2009 movies like Ashley Judd’s “Helen” and Alec Baldwin’s “Lymelife” that felt out of place in Sundance.

While the festival is never short of submissions, Cooper and Groth say some filmmakers started to consider Sundance beyond their grasp. They tried to encourage directors and producers to submit what in past years might have looked like long shots -- and created the Next category in part to showcase such films. “To create new discovery, you have to do a lot of outreach,” Cooper says.

Appaloosa Pictures producer Heather Rae knows how important the Sundance podium can be. Two years ago, she arrived in Park City with the low-budget “Frozen River.” The smuggling story not only landed a distributor in Sony Pictures Classics but also was nominated for two Academy Awards.

For next year’s festival, Rae will be bringing “The Dry Land,” a competition drama about a soldier (newcomer Ryan O’Nan) returning home from Iraq.

“It’s a big deal,” she says of premiering the movie in Park City. “I was thrilled. It’s a true honor, and really important for an American independent film. It’s the supreme platform. I’m very hopeful the film will resonate with audiences.”

It must also resonate with buyers, who more than ever look for reasons not to pick up a movie.

While admitting that the dollar value of acquisition prices is “dismal,” Rae believes it’s all part of a healthy correction. “The days of overpaying for a movie -- or of making a movie for more than it should be made -- are changing,” she says. “We should be exercising economy, or we will be destroying our industry.”

Corner Store’s Prisand says he too knows the obstacles but is confident “Hesher” and “Sympathy for Delicious” will leave the festival in good shape. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” he says, “but we have unbelievable casts.”

For a complete list of films playing in competition at Sundance, go to www.theenvelope.com.

john.horn@latimes.com


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