The Reeler

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January 16, 2007

Distributors Map the Market

The Reeler at Sundance: NYC buyers prepare to shop 'til they drop at most competitive fest ever

Filmmakers are not the only New Yorkers racing to prepare for this week's Sundance Film Festival. Nearly all of the city's distributors -- from indies to mini-majors -- are busy mapping out their strategies to see the most films and make the best deals possible in a market more competitive than ever.

“Some companies have six people spending the entire year tracking this,” said Tom Quinn, head of acquisitions at Magnolia Pictures. “You basically put together your hit list of what you hope to acquire there, jostling for position, making sure you are up to date with everything happening with the film. Some of the high-priority films will go within six to 10 hours after the first screening. You have to prioritize so you don’t miss that screening -- and you must have your decision makers at that first screening.”

Like Quinn and his colleagues at Magnolia, Sony Pictures Classics VP of acquisitions Dylan Leiner told The Reeler that he and SPC co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker already are familiar with much of what will be shown. “We know some of the filmmakers, so we have knowledge of the films from an early point,” said Leiner, who will be making his eleventh trip to Sundance. “We define our list really early on before going to the festival. We’re only three people there looking at the movies, so it’s almost impossible for us to see every movie. We’re very selective as to what we put on our schedule, so it’s very refined before going in.”

"There's all sorts of meetings, research, espionage," said Mark Urman, head of US distribution for ThinkFilm, who has already picked up the festival titles War/Dance and Zoo. "I took a whole trip to LA with my acquisitions team a few weeks ago after they announced the selections to meet with sales agents and brokers. I'm meeting with filmmakers to sniff one anothers' butts so that when we see the films, should we want to pursue (them), the chemistry is already worked out. We're still doing that into the next week."

Meanwhile, Arianna Bocco -- who, as the company's VP of acquisitions and production, is one of 10 people attending with IFC Entertainment -- also emphasized the importance of getting to know filmmakers in advance. "(I)f you get into a situation at the festival where you’re bidding against another company, they have a face to put to the name who they’re familiar with," Bocco said. "Hopefully, based on the meeting that you had here in New York, they will get to know you a little and they won’t feel like they are meeting you cold for the first time.”

Of course, the element of surprise is worth embracing as well. "You can decide your A-list and your B-list," said Picturehouse president Bob Berney. "But what I find is that you just go there and be there and change your whole schedule once you hear things on the street or buzz. So you have to be really flexible or have enough people to cover everything." (Berney estimated his crew this year may comprise as many as a dozen Picturehouse execs.)

On the purely indie side, Kino Films' Donald Krim said his label is pursuing smaller documentaries and modest features from the world dramatic competition that could potentially court an American audience, while Sundance rookie Shannon Attaway will be the only representative attending from Zeitgeist Films. “Since I’ve never done it before, I’m trying to get as much advice as possible on how to strategize -- to see as many films as I possibly can that I think might be good," she told The Reeler. "It’s a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. I’ll do the parties too; I think that’s an important part of it -- the networking.”

But not all New York theatrical distributors will make the scramble to Utah. Companies like New Yorker Films and First Run Features no longer attend, opting for smaller festivals instead. “We’ve gone the last few years but it’s just so expensive; it’s just such a circus," said Marc Mauceri, vice president of First Run Features. "And it’s turned into a big Hollywood celebrity thing. It’s not about independent films. There’s so much product out there, and you can see (it) at other festivals.”

But for those attempting to see the major titles in Park City, there's one challenge that perhaps even supersedes keeping a tight schedule: Just getting from Point A to Point B can prove impossible. “It’s winter in a mountain town, and you drive yourself ragged getting from one screening to the next," Quinn said. "Sundance’s biggest liability is that there is absolutely no parking. You’d better plan adequately or otherwise you’re going to be stuck. A few people buy parking places throughout the town with local residents.”

Bocco agreed. “If you haven’t been there before, it’s good to look at a map and know where everything is," she said. "And pray that it doesn’t snow.”

Additional reporting by S.T. VanAirsdale



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