Nervous time for indie films headed for Sundance

A scene from the Sundance-launched ''Bottle Shock.'' A scene from the Sundance-launched ''Bottle Shock.''
By John Horn
Los Angeles Times / December 4, 2008
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HOLLYWOOD - Veteran Los Angeles film producer Leslie Urdang stands among the most fortunate independent filmmakers. From 1,026 submissions, Urdang's low-budget "Adam," an uplifting love story featuring a man with Asperger's syndrome, was selected to compete in January's Sundance Film Festival, which programmers say is likely to be more upbeat and accessible than recent gatherings.

Having survived overwhelming odds to make it into the nation's preeminent showcase and market for movies made outside the studio system, "Adam," which stars Hugh Dancy ("King Arthur") and Rose Byrne ("28 Weeks Later"), now faces an equally daunting challenge: landing a distributor. Well before the US economy nosedived, the market for highbrow movies was cratering.

"The marketplace is extremely challenging," Urdang said. "Everyone hopes for a big sale, but there's an awareness that it's far less common than it used to be. We're looking at a range of ways of getting our films released."

Specialized movies have suffered through a terrible year at the box office, and the toll was especially hard on movies that premiered at last January's Sundance festival.

Several high-profile Sundance titles have yet to come out (including "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Sunshine Cleaning"), but the handful that did reach theaters mostly vanished swiftly: "American Teen" (domestic gross $943,000), "Baghead" ($140,000) and "What Just Happened" ($1.1 million) were among the biggest Sundance-launched washouts. One of this year's best theatrical Sundance performers - the wine-tasting drama "Bottle Shock," with ticket sales of more than $4 million - had to be distributed by its own makers.

Although the festival reports no drop-off in sponsors, media registration, or ticket sales, several Sundance veterans said they were reevaluating their festival plans.

"I think everyone is scaling back," said James Schamus, whose Focus Features has the only film in dramatic competition that already has theatrical distribution, the Spanish-language "Sin Nombre." Even with that film, Schamus said, Focus is planning to send fewer staffers to Park City, Utah, for the festival than last year.

Sundance programmers have never tried to create a lineup that is intentionally commercial. In fact, the festival, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, was started by Robert Redford largely to bring attention to smaller movies that might otherwise escape the spotlight.

But the festival has nevertheless yielded a series of breakout art films, including "Little Miss Sunshine," "Napoleon Dynamite," "The Blair Witch Project" and "Sex, Lies, and Videotape."

In part, it's that volume of movies being made - rather than the number getting into Sundance - that has sales agents, distributors, and producers so nervous. On any given weekend, as many as a dozen new independent movies can arrive in theaters. That makes it nearly impossible (and very expensive) for these smaller movies to get a toehold, and the economic crisis has been accompanied by a 4 percent decrease in movie admissions, most of which are sold for big-budget blockbusters anyway.

"Event films are recession-proof, but specialized movies are discretionary," said lawyer and Sundance sales agent Steven Beer, explaining why movies such as "The Dark Knight" can sell millions of tickets while many Sundance movies go unseen.

"It's a new day, a new era. The majority of people who like specialized films will see them at festivals, on DVDs, or online through streaming or downloads, but not in the conventional theatrical marketplace," Beer said.

If filmmakers arrive at Sundance assuming they will get a theatrical deal, they are likely to go home disappointed, said sales agent Andrew Herwitz, who sold the solid art-house hit "Waitress" to Fox Searchlight at Sundance in 2007. He said he was afraid the festival's more difficult movies might struggle to ever make it to the multiplex.

"Adam" producer Urdang says she knows the hurdles her film faces. "The costs of everything, from production to marketing, have expanded beyond what can be supported," Urdang said. But she believes her film's central story holds appeal not only to people touched by autism in its different forms but also to anyone struggling to form personal bonds. "It really illuminates the obstacles that all of us face in intimacy."

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