Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Entertainment attorney Jonathan Handel talks about the writers strike at the Queer Lounge.

PARK CITY — The Sundance Film Festival hosted the premieres of the movies "The Blair Witch Project," "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Little Miss Sunshine" — in 1999, 2004 and 2006, respectively. All three movies were picked up for theatrical distribution during the festival and became big hits.

Hoping to duplicate their successes, studios have come to Sundance in recent years, as they try to choose the film that will become the next "Blair Witch" or "Napoleon Dynamite."

And for a variety of reasons, Sundance '08 was expected to become a so-called "buyer's market," with dozens of films snatched up for record amounts of money.

However, at the midway point, only a handful of festival films have been snatched up, including the documentaries "Kicking It" and "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired."

Of course, the deals did include three wallet-busters. Overture Films bought the dark comedy "Henry Poole Is Here" for $3.5 million, which was the first major deal of the festival.

Fox Searchlight didn't disclose the exact terms, but trade reports say the independent studio spent "several million dollars" for "Choke," Clark Gregg's adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel.

And Focus Features purchased the comedy "Hamlet 2" for $10 million, just shy of the Sundance record $10.5 million paid for "Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006.

Entertainment attorney Jonathan Handel suggests that the studios may be taking a wait-and-see approach. "Despite all the early talk, the studios are being very cautious. Some might say they're being overly cautious," he said.

One thing that was supposed to fuel a film-buying frenzy is the Writers Guild of America strike, which has shut down a considerable number of TV and movie productions.

"The thought was that all these studio heads were going to empty their checkbooks because they're desperate for product," Handel said. "But it has only been a couple of months."

He added that there's a belief that there will be an eventual — perhaps quick — resolution to the strike. "There have been some really positive steps taken recently."

Handel is considered an expert on the strike because he is a former counsel for the WGA. He spoke to a packed house this week at the Queer Lounge, an event independent from the Sundance festival that spotlights gay, lesbian and transgendered film works.

His optimism regarding the strike was echoed by Tom Hanks. "Any time there's a work stoppage, it's bad for the industry," the actor-turned-movie-producer said.

Hanks was at Sundance's Salt Lake City Gala Friday to promote "The Great Buck Howard," a film his Playtone company helped produce. Coincidentally, it's also one film trying to score a distribution deal at the festival.

"This is a project that some of us have put more than five years' worth of work into. We're proud of it and obviously we're hoping someone will buy it," he said.

Yet when Hanks left town over the weekend, "Buck Howard" was still a free agent. And the deals for both "Kicking It" and "Wanted and Desired" were limited.

ESPN's purchase of "Kicking It" covers only the television and Internet broadcasting rights, not its theatrical distribution.

Harvey Weinstein, whose company acquired the Polanski documentary, is typically one of the biggest wheeler-dealers at Sundance. But the Weinstein Company already acquired a pair of films before the 2008 festival even began, "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead" and the Morgan Spurlock documentary "Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?"

Weinstein also struck his own, independent deal with the WGA earlier this month.

"Hamlet 2" producer Eric Eisner said he and his fellow producers "are extremely excited to work with (Focus), and we look forward to a bright future for the movie after what was an exceptional response at Sundance."

Still, more distribution deals are expected in the days to come. Especially for films with big stars. That includes "Sunshine Cleaning," a dark comedy about sisters (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) who start a crime-scene cleanup business. It comes from the producers of "Little Miss Sunshine" and is a similar crowd-pleaser.

Amy Redford's drama "The Guitar" also has good word of mouth. But she said that "if you leave the festival without getting a distribution deal, it can be devastating."


If you go . . .

What: Sundance Film Festival '08

Where: Various venues in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and the Sundance resort (Provo Canyon)

When: Through Jan. 27

How much: $15 ($10 wait-list tickets)

Phone: 435-776-7878

Web: www.sundance.org/festival


E-mail: [email protected]