Sundance Pits Filmmakers, Studios in Fiscal Tango

Sundance may be a showcase for small independent films, but when distributors are looking to buy their next indie hit, the stakes can be in the millions of dollars. In Park City, Utah, the studio suits are facing off against the filmmakers' hard-driving lawyers — and trying to avoid paying big bucks for a dud.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

There are only three days left at the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance has long been a showcase for small independent films. But for the distributors looking to buy their next indie hit, the stakes can be in the millions of dollars. Nobody wants to pay big bucks for a dud.

NPR's Kim Masters went to Park City, Utah, where she found studio suits facing off against filmmakers' hard-driving lawyers.

KIM MASTERS: You probably don't remember a 1999 film called "Happy, Texas."

(Soundbite of movie "Happy, Texas")

Ms. ILLEANA DOUGLAS (Actress): (As Doreen Schaefer) Well, I'd like to welcome you both to Happy. I'm Ms. Schaefer.

MASTERS: But for the people who do deals at Sundance, the film is an object lesson about overpaying for a film that seems hot in Park City but dies in the real world.

Mr. TOM BERNARD (Co-President, Sony Pictures Classics): I call it the "Happy, Texas" booby prize.

MASTERS: Tom Bernard wasn't the one to spend millions on "Happy, Texas." He's co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the company that released "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and this year's "Persepolis." He knows that when the bidding starts at Sundance, it easy to make a mistake.

Bernard huddles with his staff in the lobby of an out-of-the-way Park City hotel to avoid running into his competition. There's a big picture window with a view of skiers racing down the slopes. But the small team from Sony Pictures Classics is focused on the screening schedule.

The company's co-president, Michael Barker, sets a game plan.

Mr. MICHAEL BARKER (Co-President, Sony Pictures Classics): This is what we'll do. Joan(ph), you go to "The Great Buck Howard," I'll go to Roman Polanski, Tom will go to "The Wackness."

Mr. BERNARD: Okay.

Mr. BARKER: And we'll all meet up at "Sunshine Cleaning."

MASTERS: "Sunshine Cleaning" is a movie about two sisters who clean up crime scenes. It's supposed to be a hot property, and it's screening at the Racquet Club, pressed into service as a theater.

(Soundbite of film screening)

Unidentified Man: It's a great pleasure to welcome you to the world premiere of "Sunshine Cleaning."

MASTERS: Only Barker gets to that screening, and just barely.

Mr. BARKER: It's very hard to get into. I have to get someone to sneak me in. It was full by the time I showed up. And I showed up, like, 15 minutes before.

MASTERS: After the movie, Barker is cautiously noncommittal.

(Soundbite of people chatting)

MASTERS: For one thing, all his competitors from other studios could be circling. And at Sundance, there are other causes for concern.

Back at the hotel lobby office, Tom Bernard explains that many films aren't completely finished and need a lot of time and money to get into shape for theatrical release. Even if he wants to buy, Bernard says it can be hard to figure out who really controls the film.

Mr. BERNARD: Who made it, who financed it, who is selling it, and then who decides who gets it. They could be completely different people. I know of one movie last year where it was a dentist on the Eastern Shore of Maryland who made the call and everyone was pursuing all these other people, because he was the money behind it.

MASTERS: That's true for some movies, but many filmmakers have put themselves in the hands of tough and experienced sellers.

Mr. BERNARD: There's like five companies, I think, right now that have giant houses up there in the hills, and they come with about 25 people. In fact, one company now has two houses - one to house the lawyers and one to house the people working for them. We like to drive by and see who's parked on the driveway, but it's really not a healthy place to visit.

MASTERS: The company with two houses is called Cinetic. Inside one of their houses, Cinetic's team is up early tweaking plans for selling 19 films. Young and restless sellers are gathered at the dining room table and clustered in the living room.

John Sloss is master of this domain.

Mr. JOHN SLOSS (Founder, Cinetic Media): We're selling Polanski. We've got this film, "American Teen." We have this British film, "The History of My Sexual Failures," which is really wonderful.

MASTERS: Every year, Cinetic throws a party during the festival. Last time, Sloss tried to fend off meetings with bidders until the following day so he could take a break and toast his prospective victims.

Mr. SLOSS: The filmmakers were at the party, the buyers were at the party. The buyers are starting to say, you know, we may not be interested in your film tomorrow, we're going to buy tonight. And the filmmakers start freaking out. And before you know it, we're back at the condo, you know, with two films that have to close that each have four suitors.

MASTERS: There are worse problems for a seller, of course, and in these situations, Sloss sees his company as the one that will protect inexperienced filmmakers from the studio sharks.

Mr. SLOSS: We were born out of the fact that distributors are tremendously sophisticated. And for them it's war. Woe unto the filmmaker who doesn't have someone who has the kind of experience that distributors have on their side.

MASTERS: Back down the hill at the hotel lobby, the Sony Pictures Classics team doesn't see Cinetic quite that way.

Tom Bernard thinks some sellers have their client's interest at heart, taking pains to find a buyer who cares enough to make sure that a film gets a proper release.

Mr. BERNARD: Whereas maybe a company like Cinetic, they want the cash. It's not about the movie, it's about the deal.

MASTERS: Regardless of Bernard's feelings about Cinetic, the company represents a movie that interests him. "American Teen" is a documentary about a group of high school kids, and it's screening at the library in Park City.

(Soundbite of movie "American Teen")

Unidentified Woman: Take your seats right now.

MASTERS: Sloss is lurking in the hallway where he and Bernard meet. We asked Sloss how things are coming.

Mr. SLOSS: I don't think I'm going to talk substance about anything in front of Tom Bernard.

Mr. BERNARD: Why? I think you're a great guy, man.

Mr. SLOSS: I think you're a great guy, too.

MASTERS: Bernard's company bids, but after 4 days of intense negotiations, the price climbs too high, and he drops out.

In the end, the film goes for more than a million dollars, but Bernard is philosophical.

Mr. BERNARD: You never lose money at Sundance on a movie you didn't buy.

MASTERS: A couple of days later, Bernard's company snaps up "Frozen River," a movie about a struggling single mother. The seller is not Cinetic and the price is less than a million dollars.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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