Sundance Distribution Guide: Which Festival Hits You'll Be Seeing And When

By Katey Rich 2012-01-31 11:53:17discussion comments
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If you follow Sundance buzz from afar, it can be impossible to know which films to pay attention to. Sure, every critic you follow on twitter may go crazy over a documentary like Room 237, but will you ever have a chance to see it? Does the fact that people are predicting an Oscar nomination for Richard Gere in Arbitrage mean it will ever actually happen? It's impossible to know how success at Sundance will translate into the real world-- plenty of studios have learned that the hard ways, buying movies for huge amounts of money only to be stuck with flops-- but at least we can help you know what to expect and when you'll ever be able to see them. Below is my rundown of the films acquired at Sundance, organized by what I predict will be the likelihood they come to a theater near you (unless you're in New York or LA, in which case, brace for them all!) I've also included some films that don't yet have distribution but are worth your attention anyway. This will be my last post about the actual festival-- there are still some interviews to come, but technically I'm not counting those-- so help me wrap up Sundance in proper style!

If you want to just look at the full list of my Sundance coverage, click here.


FILMS COMING TO A THEATER NEAR YOU


Arbitrage. Acquired by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions for a pretty decent sum, this is likely to get one of the biggest distributions and Oscar pushes of all the Sundance films, thanks to the highly praised performance by Richard Gere at the center. It's worth noting that Lionsgate and Roadside also co-distributed Margin Call, which recently got nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

Beasts of the Southern Wild. The undisputed critical champ of Sundance-- you can read my review here-- was snapped up by Fox Searchlight for an undisclosed sum, and rumor points to a summer release. The movie isn't quite as accessible and light-hearted as previous Sundance-to-Searchlight hits like (500) Days of Summer, but proper marketing should be able to make it a word-of-mouth hit, which might inspire Searchlight to open it fairly wide.

Celeste and Jesse Forever. Picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for a reported $2 million, and featuring TV stars Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg in a sweet and unconventional rom-com (read my review here), it has the potential to be a more lighthearted hit for Classics, which typically distributes prestigious foreign films or heavier dramas. The big names on board ought to be able to get this one seen a bit wider.

For A Good Time Call… Hands down the funniest movie I saw at the festival-- I discuss it in this video blog- the raunchy phone sex comedy was picked up by Focus Features, a studio that has made modest hits of films like Hanna and In Bruges in recent years. For A Good Time Call… skews a little younger and dirtier than the studio's usual demographic, but they've got the infrastructure to get it widely seen, and may be hoping to ride the Bridesmaids coattails and make this a legitimate hit.

Lay the Favorite. Buzz was not good at all on this new film from The Queen director Stephen Frears, but the Weinstein Company seems to have picked it up based on the starpower of Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I mean, these are the people who shoved My Week With Marilyn into the Oscar race, so anything is possible, and you are guaranteed to be bombarded with ads for this whether you like it or not.

LIberal Arts. Josh Radnor's second feature was picked up by IFC Films, a small distributor that typically focuses on limited theatrical releases and VOD success. But the movie is such a crowdpleaser, and features a strong turn from rising star Elizabeth Olsen and How I Met Your Mother's Radnor himself, so I wonder if they might not try and expand it a little bigger. It won't be in every multiplex, but it should be much easier to track down than Radnor's other Sundance success happythankyoumoreplease, and should be just as well-reviewed in release as it was at the fest.

Robot and Frank. It was getting more minor Oscar buzz than some of the fest's other big hits, but Frank Langella's lead performance drew a lot of praise, and Sony Classics may see a heartwarming hit with potential on the level of their 2011 hit Midnight in Paris.

Safety Not Guaranteed. It was the biggest comedy success of the festival-- even though Matt Patches and I were more mixed on it, as you can see in our video blog-- and was snapped up by newcomer distributor FilmDistrict, which last year released critical hits like Drive and Insidious. They may not take this one as wise as Insidious, but Safety will get a much larger release than many of its Sundance brethren.

Searching for Sugar Man. WInner of the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary, this doc was one of the first sales of the festival when it went to Sony Pictures Classics, and they'll probably count on the positive audience response to bring it to a slightly wider release than you usually expect for documentaries.

The Surrogate. Fox Searchlight moved quickly to pick up the two biggest word-of-mouth hits of the festival, and along with Beasts will be releasing this Audience Award winner, sold likely on the Oscar-buzzy lead performance from John Hawkes. It should be the easiest to sell of all the Sundance hits, and while Searchlight will have a challenge on their hands with Beasts, The Surrogate is primed to be another big crowdpleaser from them.

The Words. The drama starring Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana was picked up by CBS Films well ahead of its Sundance premiere, and it's not hard to see how the starpower sold them. Though it's a tissue-thin drama that overreaches from time to time, it's not so bad, and CBS might be able to sell it to audiences looking for something literary and smart before realizing how goofy it is. Then again, these are the people who previously gave the world Beastly and Extraordinary Measures, so who knows how highbrow they actually plan to aim.


FILMS COMING TO A THEATER NEAR-ISH YOU AND PROBABLY ALSO VOD

2 Days in New York. Julie Delpy's charming comedy about a blended family and a disastrous family visit was the last film I saw at Sundance, the perfect palliative to a worn-out moviegoer. With Chris Rock on board it might draw some eyeballs in theaters, but being picked up by Magnolia, which has a flourishing VOD business, I can see this killing for on-demand viewers who are similarly in the mood for something light and endearing.

Black Rock. The twisty horror film with touches of humor was snapped up early by newbie LD Distribution, and they're promising a theatrical release, but it's hard not to anticipate some VOD futures for Black Rock, which has a little bit of star appeal in Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth. It's not big or fast-moving enough to compete against more conventional horror fare, but it's fun enough to work as a pleasant surprise to those who might stumble upon it. You can watch my interview with the three stars and learn more about it here.

Compliance. The experience of watching Craig Zobel's thriller in a theater cannot really be matched-- you're squirming in your seat, and you need people there to squirm with you. But it might be hard to sell this movie's discomfort-- and Patches and I discuss the movie's controversial reception at Sundance in this video blog-- and, again, given Magnolia's great track record on VOD, they might be able to take this one really far on that platform. Those of you who live in smaller cities, please keep an eye out for this one-- it's one of the festival's best.

Nobody Walks. The drama starring John Krasinski and Olivia Thirlby, and written by indie darling Lena Dunham, didn't receive especially good notices at the festival, but it was picked up by Magnolia anyway, and they may be able to get some eyeballs based on the names.

The Pact. Yet another movie that wasn't well-reviewed, this one a midnight movie with a horror spin, The Pact was still picked up by IFC Films, which seems to be hoping for a strong life on VOD, and maybe also some midnight movie screenings in limited release.

Queen of Versailles. One of the best-reviewed documentaries at the festival, and also the winner of the Best Directing prize in the U.S. documentary category, Queen of Versailles was picked up by Magnolia Pictures. Though it will probably have a stronger presence in art-house cinemas than a lot of films listed in this category, VOD seems an inevitably given the Magnolia distribution process, and should make it easier for many more people to see this acclaimed film.

Simon Killer. Another IFC pickup of a film that might be a tough sell-- though it's directed by acclaimed indie newcomer Antonio Campos, it's a grim, slow and occasionally divisive film that polarized even open-minded critics. Arthouse audience in major cities might embrace it, but it's a gamble that might be best sold to curious VOD audiences.

V/H/S. This horror anthology thrilled midnight audiences, and it ought to have more success in theaters given the whole midnight movie vibe. But with Magnolia Pictures distributing it, and given their success with similar horror films like House of the Devil on VOD, audiences in smaller cities should be able to see this as well.


FILMS ALSO PICKED UP FOR DISTRIBUTION

Chasing Ice. The documentary featuring jaw-dropping footage of melting glaciers was picked up by National Geographic Films, and will be airing on that channel at some point soon.

The Comedy*. This is a slight misnomer-- the hugely polarizing film starring Tim & Eric's Tim Heidecker has been picked up by the Danny McBride-run Rough House Pictures. That isn't a distribution deal, though- as I understand it, Rough House will sponsor the film and help it get out there, but who exactly will be bringing it to theaters or VOD is unclear.

How to Survive a Plague. A documentary about the anti-AIDS movement of the 1980s, picked up by Sundance Selects, which likely indicates a VOD-focused release.

Indie Game: The Movie. Winner of the World Cinema Documentary Editing award, this documentary about independent game developers was picked up by HBO, where they plan to turn it into the series; it's unclear where or how the original film will be seen.

Middle of Nowhere. The surprise winner of the U.S. Narrative Feature Directing prize was picked up by Participant Media and AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), but it's unclear what kind of release the joint distributors have planned.

Red Lights. One of the starriest debuts at the festival that was also the most despised, Red Lights was likely bought by Millennium Films based on names like Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy and Elizabeth Olsen in the cast, but it's hard to know how they'll overcome awful audience response to bring this into wider release.

Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap. The Ice-T-backed rap documentary was bought by Indomina Releasing with the promise of a theatrical release, but even with that audience-friendly subject matter, it's unclear how large a release they're planning.

Wish You Were Here. This Aussie drama comes from the same group of filmmakers who made Animal Kingdom, which eventually won Jacki Weaver a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but it's a weaker film than that one (Patches and I talk about it here). Entertainment One plans a theatrical release for later this year, but it is likely to be a small one.


FILMS STILL WITHOUT DISTRIBUTION THAT DESERVE IT

Bachelorette. I was no fan of this mean-spirited and occasionally ugly comedy, but it features a hilariously bitchy performance from Kirsten Dunst and some good jokes, and deserves to be seen even by people like me who won't really like it. It's no surprise that it's not immediately been snapped up by a distributor, but I expect that to happen sooner or later.

The End of Love. Actor/director Mark Webber made his second feature film by not telling his toddler son Isaac that he was in the movie, instead capturing the natural daily life between father and son and using it to craft a heartbreaking story of a young father coping with the sudden death of his son's mother. It's not the easiest sell, but Webber had two other movies at Sundance and is a rising star, so hopefully somebody takes a chance on his heartfelt and emotionally wrenching film.

The House I Live In. Eugene Jarecki's powerful account of the destructive War on Drugs won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. documentary, and should find a distributor in short order, even if it winds up on HBO like Jarecki's last film, Reagan. As you can read in my review, I loved it.

Room 237. This documentary will be a little trickier to get out there than most, since it makes liberal use of film clips to explore the many out-there theories about the true meaning of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. But any film lover with their salt will love it, as I write in my review, and maybe after a few more festival appearances a distributor will figure out the right way to get it out there.

Save the Date. I loved this slightly unusual spin on the typical romantic comedy, as I wrote here, and fully expect to see it picked up, given a cast that includes Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Mark Webber, Martin Starr and Geoffrey Arendt. It's a little mystifying why it's taking this long, but it ought to be in theaters sometime this year.

Sleepwalk With Me. Mike Birbiglia's debut feature, based on his one-man show of the same name that's been frequently excerpted on This American Life, won the Audience Award in its category and delighted nearly every critic, including Matt Patches and I as we discuss in this video. All that good buzz should have it with a distributor-- maybe one willing to take advantage of Birbiglia's stage presence and roadshow it-- very soon.

Smashed. Mary Elizabeth Winstead's lead performance got this drama a lot of attention at the festival-- Patches and I discuss it in glowing terms in the video blog linked above. An addiction drama is a slightly hard sell, but it's got a lot of potential, especially given names like Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman and newly minted Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer rounding out the cast. It may be destined for a smallish release, but it deserves bigger.

Under African Skies. It's a no-brainer that someone will eventually get behind this documentary about the creation of Paul Simon's landmark Graceland album, a film that I described as "heartfelt and powerful." It may wind up with a TV-only release, but it should definitely be out there soon enough.


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