This year's Sundance festival was widely judged to be a cracker, which is good news for Australian cinemagoers: Most of the independently-produced films that got the warmest receptions from buyers and critics will be released in Oz in the coming months.
Australian distributors pre-bought at least eight films and documentaries that premiered in Park City, Utah, and nabbed a further 10 titles on the spot, with several others still in negotiation.
“Sundance is definitely an important market for us to cover,” says Hopscotch Entertainment managing director Jude Troy, although she and other Aussie buyers acknowledged there was no single stand-out to rival last year's Sundance discovery Beasts of the Southern Wild. “While the main focus is on the talent agencies closing deals for US rights, it's a good place to buy small films that we can platform theatrically and set up the DVD and TV release,” adds Troy.
“The overall standard of films was very, very strong,” says Madman Entertainment CEO Paul Wiegard, who bought two docos and two films that are in production.
“The business mood was surprisingly upbeat, exemplified not only by the plethora of deals, but with the return of the big money deal,” US producer Jonathan Dana tells SBS Film. “As in any cyclical business, when inventory is low, the buyers come out, and that might be the biggest tell of the current uptick. Optimism has broken out and the shelves are relatively empty after so many years of austerity. Add in a few new buyers and that makes for a wholesale sellers' market. The films themselves were pretty good.”
At Sundance, Australian indies bid for several titles but were outspent by the US majors. Sony acquired Australian rights to two hot films as part of multi-territories deals engineered by Sony Pictures Classics: First-time director Jerusha Hess's Austenland (pictured), a fantasy which follows an English spinster/Jane Austen fan (Keri Russell) as she travels to a theme park called Austenland; and John Krokidas' Kill Your Darlings, which stars Daniel Radcliffe as Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, with Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster, Michael C Hall, Jack Huston and Elizabeth Olsen.
Roadshow Films had already snapped up two titles that had US buyers salivating. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Lovelace features Amanda Seyfried as the young Linda Boreman, who became infamous as porn star Linda Lovelace, and Peter Sarsgaard as her abusive husband.
Don Jon's Addiction marks the directing/writing debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays a selfish, porn-addicted Don Juan who's intent on changing his life. Co-starring are Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and Rob Brown.
Last year Hoyts Distribution pre-bought Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's The Way, Way Back (for which Fox Searchlight stumped up $10 million for US rights), a bittersweet comedy about a dysfunctional family, reuniting Steve Carell and Toni Collette from Little Miss Sunshine.
Thanks to a multiple-territory deal by parent eOne, Hopscotch nabbed director Jim Mickle's We Are What We Are, a loose remake of Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau's 2010 film of the same name, about a family with an awful secret: they are cannibals. Troy swooped on The Crash Reel, Lucy Walker's profile of professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce as he recovers from a traumatic brain injury.
There was a bidding war for US rights to Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, which Hopscotch eOne collared last year: it's the latest chapter in the saga of Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine following Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Hopscotch Features co-produced Anne Fontaine's Two Mothers, which launched at Sundance to mixed reviews.
Madman pounced on two documentaries, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish, which focuses on an orca, which killed three people including his trainer while in captivity; and Nick Ryan's The Summit, a harrowing account of 13 mountaineers who perished while attempting to climb K2 in 2008.
Wiegard declines to name the two films he's just acquired but he had his first look at one pre-buy: Michael Winterbottom's The Look of Love, which stars Steve Coogan as nightclub entrepreneur, porn vendor and self-styled 'king of Soho' Paul Raymond. Two earlier Madman acquisitions, Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers, which features six former heads of Israel's intelligence and security agency discussing their controversial methods, and first-time Kiwi directors Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland's debut feature film Shopping, a crime drama, premiered at Sundance.
Transmission Films stepped up for Twenty Feet from Stardom, Morgan Neville's doco that looks at the mostly anonymous singers who provided background vocals to the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting.
Anchor Bay Films acquired US, Australian and UK rights to Calvin Lee Reeder's The Rambler, which stars Dermot Mulroney as a guy who's released from prison and stumbles upon a mystery as he attempts a dangerous journey through back roads and small towns en route to reconnecting with his long lost brother.
Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, which screened in Sundance's Spotlight section, chronicles her mother's secret affair and the ripples it caused in her family life growing up in Toronto; Palace bought that doco at last year's Toronto festival.
Of the other most sought-after titles at Sundance, only Fruitvale, Ryan Coogler's film which recounts the last day in the life a 22-year-old Oakland man who was shot in the back by a police officer while lying handcuffed on the floor of a train station, evidently has no Australian deal yet. Odds are the film, which won the grand jury prize and audience award at Sundance, won't be on the shelf for long.