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Buying time

Hollywood | A writers' strike and fears about 2009's movie season do not prompt studios to open up their wallets at Sundance

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

PARK CITY, Utah- Geoffrey Gilmore, the director of the Sundance Film Festival, says that he considers 15 to 20 film sales to be a success for his festival. This year, only 10 films were sold by the end of the festival's 10 days, a surprise to many who thought that the continuing writers' strike would be a boon for completed independent films.

Despite the number of studios hoping to pick up films, plenty of people in the industry are worried about overbidding for films. And the fear of a hole in the 2009 movie rollout resulting from the writers' strike did not seem to affect the bottom line. Only $25 million was spent during the festival this year, compared with $53 million for 20 titles last year.

The Cinderella story of the festival in recent years has been Little Miss Sunshine, which made over $100 million worldwide on a production budget of $8 million. Purchased for a record $10.5 million at Sundance, the film was a huge success and won Alan Arkin an Oscar for best supporting actor.

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Aside from the hope of seeking out the next box-office hit at this year's festival, the impact of Little Miss Sunshine was most clearly felt in the film Sunshine Cleaning. Along with its similar title, the crime-scene-cleanup film boasts a loving but troubled family banding together, a jingling soundtrack, and even Arkin in a strange but endearing grandfather role. The film includes leads played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, but has not yet been sold.

Other films in the festival met with more success. The Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Choke, about a sex addict who makes money pretending to be a choking victim in restaurants, sold to Fox Searchlight for $5 million. Henry Poole Is Here, a Luke Wilson drama pitting reason against faith, sold for $3.5 million. Frozen River, which followed a single mother in upstate New York and a Mohawk Indian as they smuggle Canadians into America, won for best drama and sold for about $1 million.

Talent seemed to be in abundance, but no one has a clear idea about whether critical acclaim at Sundance will lead to banking at the box office. Waitress and Once did well at the box office last year, but 2007's darling Grace Is Gone sold for $4 million after a bidding war, and went on to make less than $40 million.

This year's headline grabber was Hamlet 2. A latecomer to the festival, the ironic high-school teacher comedy sold for $10 million. With a cast including Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, and Elizabeth Shue, the film's last-minute editing might be to blame for some spotty moments, but it is often very funny.

Documentaries seem to have been more successful this year. The first three buys of the festival were nonfiction. The Blacklist, a compilation of interviews with famous African-Americans; Up the Yangtze, which follows a cruise ship up the Yangtze river before it floods; and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, an often empathetic portrayal of the convicted rapist/director, were all bought in the first days, while the Indiana high-school doc American Teen sold for $1 million.

SONY Classics also bought the oddball horror flick Baghead and the well-received Ben Kingsley stoner film The Wackness by the end of the festival, but there are still many audience and critical favorites in search of a buyer.

The support of HBO films ensures that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's intimate baseball biopic Sugar will be seen somewhere, but it has yet to find a cinematic distributor. Phoebe in Wonderland boasts Patricia Clarkson, Felicity Huffman, and a powerful performance by 9-year-old Elle Fanning.

Anvil: The Real Story of Anvil is a near mockumentary about an '80s hair metal band with great box-office potential. And both the audience award winners for dramatic and documentary categories need to be seen by larger audiences. Captain Abu Raed tells the story of a Jordanian airport janitor who transforms the lives of children in his village, while Man on Wire shows the World Trade Center as a supporting lead in the retelling of a tightrope walk between the twin towers.

With 207 films in the festival this year, it was impossible to see them all, but you have to hold out hope that audiences will see the best of them in the future.

The show must go on

But a prolonged writers' strike would make the Oscars much less lucrative for Hollywood

By Megan Basham

The Academy Awards has often been called a four-hour commercial for movies, and it is true that something about seeing actors and directors tearfully accepting gold statuettes for their work turns out audiences in a way that nothing else can. But if the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and studio bosses are unable to resolve the differences that have led to a three-month strike, Hollywood's largest annual marketing event may be in jeopardy.

Despite rampant speculation that the Oscars might go the way of the Golden Globes, which were reduced to a press conference earlier this year, Academy Awards producer Gilbert Cates has insisted the show will air as scheduled with or without celebrities.

Few actors have directly stated that they would stay home on Feb. 24 as they did with the Globes, but conventional wisdom has it that most nominees will once again follow the lead of their own union, the Screen Actors Guild, and boycott the ceremony in a show of solidarity. Three best-actor nominees, George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) and Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises) have publicly hinted that they will not attend if the strike is not settled, as have press favorites like Angelina Jolie. Even confirmed host Jon Stewart, Mediabistro.com reports, "is telling insiders he will not host the Oscars unless the WGA writer's strike is settled."

So the show may go on, but without an audience full of A-listers in extravagant tuxes and gowns, it's unlikely many viewers will be enticed to watch. This could cost the Academy $75 million to $100 million in advertising revenue (a typical 30-second spot at the Oscars goes for $1.7 million).

But the prospect of a starless Oscar night must be weighed in more than just ad revenue. Studios must also figure in what they're losing in film promotion. In previous years movies like Shakespeare in Love, Million Dollar Baby, and The English Patient all saw significant box-office bumps after winning big at the awards show that draws 40 million to 60 million viewers. If it doesn't air, some of this year's more artistic films, which no doubt counted on Oscar pomp and circumstance to build viewership, could be crippled. Jeff Bock, an analyst for Exhibitor Relations Inc., a company that tracks ticket sales, predicts that a pared-down Academy Awards will particularly hurt small-budget nominees like The Great Debaters, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Atonement.

The good news for the industry is that WGA representatives and studios have resumed informal talks and both sides profess a desire to reach a solution before the ceremony. However, spokespeople for the WGA caution that those talks could break down as they did in December if key demands, most of which involve how large a percentage writers receive for internet-generated revenue, aren't met. If that should happen, the financial repercussions are likely to be significant for everyone in the entertainment business, from studio heads, to actors, to key grips. Said one industry insider, "If the strike doesn't settle by the Oscars, we're facing a potential nightmare scenario."

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