Sundance Film Fest Feels Pinch of Writers Strike

During the first week of the Sundance Film Festival, buyers compete for films in earnest. Competition for films is expected to be tougher this year because the screenwriters' strike means supply is limited. But the highest bidder might not be the best distributor for an independent film.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Hollywood has decamped to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, bringing along worries about the screenwriters' strike. More than 120 films are playing in Park City over 11 days. Sundance has grown into a frenzied event. Sellers are looking for rich deals and film distributors are looking for the next indie sleeper hit films such as "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Napoleon Dynamite." At a press briefing yesterday, Robert Redford, the figure most associated with Sundance, emphasized that often the movies that get a lot of attention aren't the ones that turn out to be hits.

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor; Founder, Sundance Institute): I've heard a lot of stories about buzz early on in festivals in the past years, and the buzz evaporated, and the surprise was something that was not expected. I think that's great.

SIEGEL: And our own Kim Masters is among those making their way through the snowdrifts at Sundance.

And, Kim, Robert Redford talks about the buzz evaporating. I gather everything's just freezing solid there where you are?

KIM MASTERS: We had actually seen our thermometer going to minus three, and there's quite a lot of snow. So, yes, we're feeling the chill here.

SIEGEL: Okay. Well, onto the - let's say, the labor context for this year's Sundance. The screenwriters' strike remains unresolved. Yesterday the Directors Guild reached a contract agreement with the movie studios. What are you hearing, if anything, about all that in Utah?

MASTERS: Well, I think it's a factor in peoples' minds, that this might move the writers towards settling the strike sooner rather than later. But honestly, the atmosphere here is so manic, and we have so many buyers running to so many screenings, and so many sellers trying to figure out how hot their movie is or isn't, that it's, sort of, part of this discombobulated environment at Sundance.

SIEGEL: Well, over the last several years, the specialty divisions of studios have paid millions of dollars for Sundance films. Is the writers' strike affecting the deal-making at Sundance?

MASTERS: Well, that's the question. Will people pay more than they did before even because they're trying to fill holes in their schedules? And certainly, the sellers are hoping that will be the case. But we talked to Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics - he's one of these buyers - and he was hoping that would not be so.

Mr. TOM BERNARD (Co-president and Co-founder, Sony Pictures Classics): The writers' strike is, to me, hype from the sellers. The more they can get out gees, then no one has any movies. Everyone's going to be coming here with zillions of bucks. People might catch that panic. But I think the buyers here are too smart. If you're going to see anything this year, you're going to see people proceed with caution because of all the disasters last year.

SIEGEL: He spoke of all the disasters last year. I assume movie people know what that means. What was he talking about all the disasters last year?

MASTERS: Last year was the worst in terms of box office results from pictures purchased in the Sundance auction. So, the studios bought 20 movies for $53 million. So far, 14 of those have been released, and they've only grossed $34 million. So, the studios don't get to keep all that money. That's quite a shortfall for the business that was done. The poster child for that was probably a film called "Grace Is Gone," bought for $4 million. It stars John Cusack, and it's vanished pretty much without a trace. So, that's the kind of thing the studios would like to avoid.

SIEGEL: But certain movies at Sundance will probably fetch a big price. Which movies are being talked up this year?

MASTERS: Well, there's a number of them. There's one called "What Just Happened?" which is - with Robert De Niro and Barry Levinson directing. It's about a Hollywood producer and his adventures. And there's a movie called "Sunshine Cleaning," about women who clean up crime scenes. And that movie stars Amy Adams, who was in "Enchanted" and "Charlie Wilson's War," and she's a pretty hot commodity right now. So, that's one that's getting talked up. And there's another one called "The Great Buck Howard," about a mentalist with declining powers. And it is produced by Tom Hanks, and in an astonishing coincidence, it stars his son. And there's also a number of documentaries that are getting talked up, although, they didn't do well last year. There's one on Roman Polanski. There's "Trouble the Water," about Hurricane Katrina. There's one about steroids, one about a baseball player from the Dominican Republic. So, those are also the subject of great interest.

SIEGEL: Okay. Well, stay warm, Kim.

MASTERS: Thank you. I'll try.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Kim Masters at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

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