Park City at Midnight is getting special attention


Midnight at the Sundance Film Festival is usually when most Hollywood types are just starting to party. But at this year’s 26th annual showcase of independent film, many film buyers will be heading in a different direction: late-night sales screenings.

The festival, beginning today in Park City, Utah, has yielded the art-house breakouts “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Reservoir Dogs.” Over the next 10 days, though, distributors could be less interested in potential award-winners than carnage and comedy.

With the ultra low-budget “Paranormal Activity” emerging last year as one of the most profitable movies in Hollywood history -- made for about $15,000, the supernatural story grossed $108 million domestically -- there’s fresh focus on Park City at Midnight, the festival section dedicated to inexpensive horror works and often raunchy comedies.

It’s the same sleep-is-overrated programming slot that brought us the thriller hits “The Blair Witch Project,” “Saw” and “Open Water,” and independent distributors -- who have been suffering through their own slasher story with corporate cutbacks and closures -- are praying there’s another such film lurking in the wee hours at America’s most prestigious film festival.

“ ‘Paranormal Activity’ is clearly an anomaly. But what you can draw from it is that people don’t care how much a movie costs if it’s something they really want to see,” said veteran film sales agent Jonathan Dana, who is expecting intensified interest in low-budget movies in both the Midnight section and Next, a new Sundance category for movies costing less than $500,000 to make -- about what “Avatar” spent in an afternoon of filming.

The backers of some of the Midnight films are confident their movies will play on their own terms and also create ticket-selling word of mouth.

“This is a movie that definitely will not just blend in,” said Peter Safran, a producer of the claustrophobic thriller “Buried,” which stars Ryan Reynolds. “And we have a star in Reynolds who can get on talk shows and actually promote the movie.”

In addition to “Buried,” in which Reynolds plays an American truck driver in Iraq held for ransom while confined in an underground coffin, one of the more talked-about Midnight movies is “High School,” a pothead comedy about a valedictorian and a stoner who join forces to battle drug testing. Both films are looking for distribution deals.

Warren Zide, a producer of “High School,” said he’s hopeful buyers and audiences will compare the film with “American Pie” (which Zide also produced) and “The Hangover” because of “High School’s” originality and irreverence. “It’s a different kind of comedy, and that’s what makes it commercial,” Zide said. “It’s a profitable genre to be in right now.”

Low-budget movies with a more serious bent are also attracting early buyer interest, like the Next film “The Freebie,” a romantic dramedy in which a husband and wife each agree to sleep with one person of their choosing.

“There’s definitely a renewed vitality in the micro-budget sphere. The big question is whether studios are ready to embrace genres besides horror,” said “The Freebie” executive producer Mark Duplass.

The bottom-line benefits of an effective genre film are alluring, especially as the studios are scaling back (when not closing) their specialty film divisions. Unlike pricey studio movies that can chew up hundreds of millions of dollars in production and marketing expenses, genre films not only cost much less to produce but also can sustain themselves through free young-moviegoer recommendations. What’s more, these movies often sell for a fraction of the Sundance record $10.5 million Fox Searchlight paid in 2006 for “Little Miss Sunshine.”

It wasn’t just “Paranormal Activity” that proved the point: 2009’s biggest return-on-investment releases included Sony’s “District 9” and Warner Bros.’ “The Hangover,” movies in which the positive word of mouth was more remarkable than the production budgets. Paramount Pictures, which bought distribution rights to “Paranormal Activity” for about $350,000, recently launched a new division dedicated to movies budgeting under $100,000. Of course, there’s much more than genre titles on the Sundance block. Higher-profile pictures up for sale include the Natalie Portman film “Hesher,” the Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams romantic drama “Blue Valentine,” Ben Affleck in the layoff story “The Company Men,” and “The Extra Man,” a story about an unlikely friendship from the filmmakers behind “American Splendor.”

Buyers in the teeming mountain resort town will be keeping in mind several cautionary tales.

For all of “Paranormal Activity’s” success (the film wasn’t invited to Sundance and instead played at Park City’s concurrent Slamdance Film Festival), most of last year’s Midnight movies disappeared from the multiplex almost as soon as the sun rose: “Black Dynamite,” bought by Sony for $2 million, barely grossed $200,000 domestically, Norway’s “Dead Snow” grossed $47,000, and “Grace” didn’t even get to $10,000 in North American cinemas.

The news was better for dramas acquired last January: “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” is a minor hit and an Oscar contender, and “An Education” is popular with critics and art-house patrons.

With fewer buyers -- Miramax Films, Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures have all vanished -- optimists point to the ascendancy of video-on-demand services such as Cinetic FilmBuff and IFC Films along with several new buyers, including Oscilloscope Pictures (last year’s Sundance title “The Messenger”) and Apparition (this year’s music drama “The Runaways”).

For the makers of Sundance’s scary movies, the best place to be is in a theater when everybody else is asleep.

Said Steven Hoban, the producer of the Park City at Midnight movie “Splice,” which he said is about to land a distribution deal: “Midnight audiences all around the world are demanding movies that are interesting, thought-provoking and smart.”