At Sundance, Coping In A Recession

The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up in Park City, Utah, on Sunday. Films were well attended, despite the trying economic times. But what about the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes? Entertainment writer Adam B. Vary and film distributor Andrew Herwitz talk to host Jacki Lyden about the business of film at Sundance.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

The Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, came to an end today. And even though people are snapping up movie tickets despite the recession, film distributors at the festival were still hoping for bargains in a cost-conscious economy. To talk about the wheeling and dealing at Sundance this year, we called on two guests. Adam B. Vary is a staff writer at "Entertainment Weekly," back in L.A. after the festival. And Andrew Herwitz is the president of the Film Sales Company, which has arranged distribution for many films, including the Oscar-winning "Born into Brothels." I asked Adam Vary if there were any bidding wars this year like the one that resulted in a $10.5 million price tag for "Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006.

Mr. ADAM B. VARY (Staff Writer, Entertainment Weekly): Nothing at that level, no. Last year, the movie that got the most money was "Hamlet II," which sold to Focus Features for $10 million. And then when it made it to theaters, it made about half that money. So, this year, I think people have learned their lesson. And the highest amount of money spent, at least by all reports, was $3.5 million for a movie called "Spread," which stars Ashton Kutcher as a kept man.

Mr. ANDREW HERWITZ (President, The Film Sales Company): This is Andrew speaking, Adam is right that prices didn't reach astronomical levels as they have in many past years, but it also needs to be remembered that as technology changes, the cost of producing a movie declines. And so it's more possible for a production to be in profit at a lower number than it may have been in years past.

LYDEN: Now, Andrew Herwitz, your company sold the film "Adam" to Fox Searchlight at this year's festival for reportedly close to $2 million. How hard a deal was that to make?

Mr. HERWITZ: Fortunately, we were able to, before the festival, really engage Fox Searchlight into being very interested in the film. So at the initial screening, Fox Searchlight was already in a position to make a decision and make an aggressive offer and then continue negotiating with us.

LYDEN: Adam Vary, besides selling the movies for less money, did you see changes in the kinds of deals filmmakers struck with distributors?

Mr. VARY: Yeah, there were a couple interesting deals. There were a few deals in which the theatrical rights and the DVD rights were split between two companies. That happened with "Brooklyn's Finest," which is a violent cop drama. And then there was another film called "Humpday," which was about two heterosexual men who decide to make an artistic pornography film with the two of them. That sold to an outfit called Magnolia, and their plan is to release it into video on demand first, and then give it a theatrical release.

LYDEN: Andrew Herwitz, what does all this mean for filmmakers in the way they make and market their movies, if you're going to be splitting up the rights afterward?

Mr. HERWITZ: What that ends up meaning is that the filmmaker needs to be very much more engaged in the process of distribution, which is, I think, for the filmmakers, sort of a relief because in past times, they often feel concerned that they've spent however many years working on a film, they sign a deal, and then they show up at the premiere.

LYDEN: And Adam B. Vary, what do these trends mean for an audience that may want to see independent films debut in a theater and not, say, on pay-per-view?

Mr. VARY: Well, they'll still be able to find that. I mean, theatrical release is not going anywhere anytime soon. But, you know, one of the larger complaints about independent movies sometimes is that a movie that you've read about in, say, "Entertainment Weekly" only makes it to theaters in New York and L.A. and maybe Chicago, and then kind of disappears. And for people that are really interested in independent film, these new, alternative ways of distributing them and exhibiting them will give a wider audience access to those films. At least, that's the hope.

LYDEN: Adam B. Vary is a staff writer at "Entertainment Weekly," and Andrew Herwitz is president of the Film Sales Company. Thank you both very much.

Mr. VARY: Thank you.

Mr. HERWITZ: Thank you.

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