I typically don't follow film acquisitions from festivals, but since last fall, only one major film got distribution (A Single Man by The Weinstein Company) from screening at film festivals, I think it's interesting how it seems to be the face of American independent filmmaking has changed. I post this on the very day that Miramax Films (the subsidiary of Disney), once prominently and infamously owned by the Weinsteins, officially closes up shop. It would be a mistake to say that without Miramax the last twenty-five years or so would have been a lot bleaker for independent film in the United States, as well as prominence in foreign films.
They exloded on the scene with sex, lies and videotape in 1989 as the brashed, hippest studio around. Of course this studio was owned by the Walt Disney Company which made its controversies even more warped. But the debut of Steven Soderbergh's raw and risky teeny-tiny film somehow catipulted in the zeitgeist of the pop culture and announced the bold new world of American independent film. Thanks to shrewd marketing the Weinsteins, the film was a relative success, and scored Soderbergh an Oscar nomination for original screenplay-- but it was the fact that the film had made an impact on the film industry, for bustling filmmakers and for the Weinsteins that makes the film a starting point of the buyers market that has been around various film festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Venice and Toronto for the past two decades.
Things have changed a lot since then. What Miramax started, was what every major studio did over the next two decades...form a small version of their bigger studios. 20th Century Fox has Fox Searchlight; Universal Pictures has Focus Features; Paramount Pictures has Paramount Vantage; Warner Bros. has Warner Independent Pictures; Sony Pictures has Sony Pictures Classics. The problem is that with the exception of Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics and Focus, most of others aren't very good at maintaining them the way Miramax was. Add to that an economy that sucks, and suddenly everyone's becoming more conservative about spending money on films that aren't guarnateed a big profit. This isn't to say all is gloom, but it's not as joyous and exhuberant as years before.
Last year for example, Lion Gate Films purchased Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire which is now on it's way to becoming an Oscar nominee (the first best picture nominee ever that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, an aside), but it wasn't the selling frenzy as it might have been year ago, when for instance Little Miss Sunshine was sold to Fox Searchlight after an intense bidding war for over $10 million. Or when Focus Features paid even more for Hamlet 2. Or when Miramax back in 1999 went ape shit and spent $10 million on Happy, Texas, a movie that didn't come close to earning that green back.
This year the offerings at Sundance look very interesting, at least on paper, and it seems the buyers are there too, but not as prolifically as years past. So far, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Alright is the biggest sale-- almost $5 million to Focus Features. The film stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple with children, and when their children start to wonder who their father is, Mark Ruffalo shows up. Reviews so far have been very positive and the A-list actors insure that Focus will likely earn it's coin back. Other sales are the Iraq-stuck in a coffin film Buried, with Ryan Reynolds, which sold to Lions Gate for $3 million, the Hassidic Jew film Hesher with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Natalie Portman to Newmarket for $1 million, as well as the Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvienent Truth; It Might Get Loud) education documentary Waiting for Superman to Paramount Vantage.