As Sundance stumbles, punch-drunk, into its second half, the unsaid reality echoing around the festival was the lack of any fevered deal-making or rumors of bidding wars surrounding the documentary titles. Last year, ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED had already made it’s high-profile sale to HBO and days of bartering over AMERICAN TEEN finally netted a deal with Paramount Vantage.
For the first time in anyone’s recent memory, the first half of the fest had come and gone without a major doc sale. (HBO’s BURMA VJ acquisition and SPC’s TYSON pick-up, announced at the start of the fest, came on the heels of previous festival screenings.)
As one sales agent noted to me, expectations coming into the festival had been lowered due to the struggling economy and the still lingering sense that recent high stakes Sundance buying hasn’t led to big box office success (see TEEN and 2007’s MY KID COULD PAINT THAT and IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON).
But as folks walked around positively balmy Park City (41 degrees this afternoon), there were many who felt that this year’s doc slate may not be as solid as years' past. Even films that people liked seemed to come with caveats – usually the familiar “could stand to lose 10-20 minutes”. And we sat in on a couple of press and industry screenings that felt positively empty compared to the SRO conditions of years past (a reflection on the fewer number of journalists attending Sundance or lowered interest in the docs, it’s hard to say which).
Further, there was much grumbling over this year’s new Temple Theatre venue, set several miles outside of Park City proper, which housed many of this year’s doc screenings. More than one person told me they were skipping a documentary screening because it was out at the Temple.
This is not to suggest that everything was flat out terrible. There were a number of doc-heavy parties and events that reinforced why the festival remains an essential gathering place for nonfiction filmmakers, among them a reception for this year’s Chicken and Egg grant recipients, a number of informal evening gatherings at the Sundance Filmmakers Lodge (a late night “lodge” concept that most appreciated but which we felt reinforced a hierarchical system of some are welcome/some are not – including producers of competition films – that Sundance usually does a good job of avoiding) and a unsurprisingly amazing dancing/karaoke house party thrown by the BritDoc folks that at least one residence in Deer Valley is still recovering from.
And the talk surrounding some of the competition titles suggests that some deals – perhaps not the 7-figure pacts of years past – may be made before the fest ends or in its aftermath.
Of this year’s world premieres, I heard numerous folks talking up their positive responses to Eric Daniel Metzger’s REPORTER (from HBO Documentary Films), RJ Cutler’s THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE (from A&E IndieFilms), Louis Psihoyos’ THE COVE, Michel Orion Scott’s OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY, Ondi Timoner's WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, Joe Berlinger's CRUDE and John Maringouin's BIG RIVER MAN.
We'll be posting our thoughts on this year's Sundance titles in the coming two weeks.