LOS ANGELES — Buyers at last year's Sundance Film Festival made big-money bets on two very different films: a thriller starring Ryan Reynolds and a dramedy about a lesbian couple and their sperm donor. If you were a Las Vegas bookie looking at box-office odds, you'd have put your chips on Reynolds and his stuck-in-a-coffin story.
But Buried was a conspicuous flop for distributor Lionsgate, taking in less than half the $3 million that the company spent to acquire it. Lisa Cholodenko's dysfunctional-family tale The Kids Are All Right turned into a national conversation piece, grossing $21 million in domestic release for Focus Features, winning two Golden Globes and looking likely to land several Oscar nominations next week.
Festival heat is rarely a reliable prophet of commercial success for independent movies. As the world's largest independent-film gathering begins this week in Park City, Utah, buyers will seek this year's Kids, even as they acknowledge that trying to gauge how a Sundance movie will play in theaters is about as exact as throwing darts blindfolded.
"You have to go to a lot of movies with an open mind and a semi-open wallet," said James Schamus, chief executive of Focus. "But you still have no idea what will work."
Ever since a tiny movie called the The Blair Witch Project came out of nowhere in Park City in 1999 and turned into one of the most profitable films of all time, buyers have come hoping to land a title that turns into a financial windfall. Last year, many movies with presumed commercial potential fizzled — consider Welcome to the Rileys, starring Kristen Stewart, or the Katie Holmes picture The Romantics. Meanwhile, difficult dramas such as Winter's Bone and Blue Valentine — and the documentaries Waiting for 'Superman' and Exit Through the Gift Shop — turned into specialty hits.
This year's crop of movies has proved particularly tricky to assess ahead of time, given the abundance of titles from emerging and lesser-known filmmakers. (Second-year festival director John Cooper has sought to include edgier, less-commercial offerings.)
Among the acquisition targets mentioned in an informal survey of buyers are Little Birds, a coming-of-age drama starring Kate Bosworth; Margin Call, a ripped-from-the-headlines story about the financial crisis starring Kevin Spacey; The Ledge, a thriller about faith and a potential suicide; the Paul Rudd comedy My Idiot Brother; Salvation Boulevard, a dark comedy with Pierce Brosnan playing a wayward evangelist; and Higher Ground, a spiritual drama that marks the directorial debut of Vera Farmiga.
Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma) has shifted gears from his typical comedies with a coming-of-age horror movie titled Red State, another hot sales target. He made headlines by saying he's considering staging an in-theater auction for rights to the independent feature after it premieres Sunday.
On the documentary side, buyers are keen on a look at a Liberian warlord (The Redemption of General Butt Naked) and Magic Bus, an exploration of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters directed by Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side.
Some distributors, meanwhile, have put their markers on films before the festival even starts.
Sony Pictures Classics announced Tuesday that it bought rights to the horror-drama Take Shelter, starring former Lexington resident Michael Shannon. HBO snapped up Project Nim, the story of a chimpanzee trained to think like a human and directed by Oscar winner James Marsh (Man on Wire). Oprah Winfrey's new OWN Network has acquired television rights to several documentaries, including Becoming Chaz, a look at the sex-change operation of Sonny and Cher's daughter, Chastity Bono.
Most of these deals occurred quietly, for prices well below $1 million, a sharp contrast from the all-night, seven-figure bidding wars that gripped the festival just a few years ago. One or two films probably will be sold that way in Park City, but many more deals will end in low-key sessions days or even weeks after the festival ends Jan. 30.
Hal Sadoff, a sales agent for International Creative Management, said many of the deals at September's Toronto International Film Festival were for relatively modest prices, and that some of the films will be seen not in theaters but only through video-on-demand networks, which don't always generate additional income for filmmakers.
Mark Urman, the former head of now-defunct distributor ThinkFilm who bought the Oscar nominee Half Nelson five years ago, said:
"We may not be living in salad days, but there are big leafy greens in there."