Collegians Act as Sundance Film Scouts for Sony

Each year battalions of studio executives descend on the Sundance Film Festival, looking for the next indie hit. Sony Pictures is also using college students to gauge how a movie will play in the real world — in exchange for party invites and goodie bags.

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Sundance is the place for big studios to buy up the next big independent movie hits. As Kenneth Turan pointed out, this year the studios are worried about losing money on these deals. So one studio is turning to unusual experts to help pick the best films. And by experts we mean moviegoers of a certain age. NPR's Kim Masters has our final act in this morning's drama.

KIM MASTERS: It's Sunday night on Main Street in Park City, Utah, and a crowd is pouring out of the Egyptian theater. They've just seen "Mancora," a sexy film set in Peru. It made quite an impression on two college kids - Charles Lee(ph) and Jessica Pasola(ph).

Ms. JESSICA PASOLA (College Student): It was phenomenal. It was so well done, and I've never seen such a pretty cast, actually.

Mr. CHARLES LEE (College Student): Apparently everyone in Peru is a model. Everyone.

Ms. PASOLA: So provocative and sexy, I almost blushed in my - I probably did blush in my seat.

MASTERS: Lee and Pasola are undergraduates at DePauw University in Indiana. They've come to Sundance as part of a winter-term program. That's where Tom Bernard comes in. He's co-president of Sony Pictures Classics and he heard about the class trip from a friend at a funeral. He thought this might just be an opportunity for his company.

Mr. TOM BERNARD (Sony Pictures Classics): You just have sort of an odd idea, you know, to have a bunch of students show up here. Let's get them to interact with us.

MASTERS: Bernard comes to Sundance to buy films. Of course he's been out of college for a few years, and he says it's hard for him to gauge how a movie will play in the real world because Sundance is such a peculiar environment.

Mr. BERNARD: You've got industry people and people that are native people from Utah that, you know, a lot of Mormons, and it's a very superficial environment when you go to these screenings.

MASTERS: So maybe the college kids could help.

Mr. BERNARD: We have mission control in our office who's going to be their e-mail pal, Seth. And so Seth is going to bounce back and forth with them throughout the festival. Maybe we'll try and help them get into some parties, you know, they'll give us information.

MASTERS: For the students, sending in the e-mails was not meant to be homework.

Ms. PASOLA: They were, like, don't make it pretty. Don't spend a lot of time on it. Tell us exactly what you think. Don't sugarcoat it.

MASTERS: We met up with Jessica Pasola and Charles Lee at a coffee shop on Main Street. Initially, Lee said, there were things about this plan that bothered him.

Mr. LEE: The idea that we'd be helping this gigantic film company just, you know, be these cool finders or something, you know, tell them what to buy.

MASTERS: But he did some research and realized that some of his favorite films were released by Sony Pictures Classics, including "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Mr. LEE: I consider myself, you know, a cinephile - whatever pretentious word you want to attach that. But Sony Pictures Classic, although a branch of a gigantic company, are not trying to sell us trash. There is something much more substantive there than "I Am Legend," or you know, "Rush Hour 9," or whatever we're being fed.

Ms. PASOLA: And they're excited about some of the same films I am, which - it's really nice. I really am interested in "Sunshine Cleaning," and we tried to get tickets today, but alas, no luck.

MASTERS: But the mere fact that these students are interested in "Sunshine Cleaning," a comedic drama about two sisters who tidy up crime scenes, is enough to pique the interest of the Sony film executives. The picture didn't sell right away and the studio is keeping an eye on it. Meanwhile, the company is teaching the students a bit about how Hollywood works.

Ms. PASOLA: It's a risky kind of very informal business. Actually, you have to go to parties and wait until like 1:00 in the morning, 2:00 in the morning, and then even the parties are constantly just doing business.

MASTERS: And there are other ways in which this is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Ms. PASOLA: They give us swag, like buttons and hats and all that.

MASTERS: Hmm. There's a lot more to swag at Sundance than buttons and hats. The place is full of gifting suites, where celebrities pick up jewelry and high-end footwear. But Lee and Pasola are young. There's still plenty of time to learn.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

Mr. LEE: We just saw on Olsen twin.

Ms. PASOLA: Yeah, we did.

Mr. LEE: So we just had the celebrity disillusionment.

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