Those tall, icy piles of matter smothering Park City every January aren't always snow — they could just as easily be discarded Sundance dreams. But as usual, a few lucky ones will avoid the freeze.
Amid the contraction and pocketbook panic gripping the independents and mini-majors this winter, predicting a Sundance bear market seems a safe, obvious choice for 2009. But it also seems relative — especially following a year when sales of festival films reportedly plunged 66 percent from their collective 2007 high of $45 million, and eight-figure buys like Hamlet 2 (and its subsequent seven-figure gross) signaled a reality check that had little or nothing to do with an imploding economy. Distributors need content; they just don't need to walk away with one film to show for $11 million.
So what will they be spending on — and for how much — over the next 10 days? We scoured this year's selections for a few intrepid predictions:
· I Love You Phillip Morris. Jim Carrey is a cop who turns to crime, goes to prison and winds up falling in love with a fellow inmate played by Ewan McGregor. Adapted from a true story by the guys who brought you Bad Santa, Morris may not be the first film that goes (it doesn't premiere until Sunday), but it's already commanding the highest going rate at the fest and could tempt a Miramax or Fox Searchlight — the latter of which is one of the few potential suitors with the proven alacrity and class to successfully sell a film like this — to write a $9 million or $10 million check in the wee hours of Monday morning. If it's not this year's What Just Happened?, languishing overhyped, unfunny and out of place in Park City.
· An Education. Nick Hornby adapted his novel about Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16-year-old London girl whose coming of age is kick-started after meeting an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) in 1961. She's on her way to Oxford, he's on his way to a nightclub, holy Christ what will she choose? Word is that An Education is a starmaker for Mulligan, aided by another anticipated film at the fest (see below) and a supporting cast — Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina, Sally Hawkins — that will attract the likes of Sony Pictures Classics, Miramax and Focus Features for at least $4 million.
· The Greatest. Setting itself up as an In the Bedroom without the undercooked revenge subplot, The Greatest thrusts Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon into grief over the loss of their teenage son in a car accident. Mulligan appears as the dead kid's girlfriend, lessons are learned, Oscar clips ensue — again, if it's any good: Sundance's bead on middle-class white mourning is growing tired, and Brosnan's executive producer credit whispers "vanity project." But to the extent they even show up with any money at all, the Weinsteins and Paramount Vantage are suckers for this kind of stuff. It may not leave Park City with a deal, but we'll probably hear numbers between $4 million and $5 million throughout the week.
· Cold Souls. Paul Giamatti plays himself in the story of an actor, tormented by his forthcoming role as Uncle Vanya, who turns to a futuristic soul-freezing enterprise as a means of assuaging his anxiety. Which works great — until his soul is stolen and enlisted for use by a Russian soap star. On one hand, the quirk potential here is kind of skin-crawling. But on the other, director Sophie Barthes blew us away with her 2007 short Happiness, which skimmed similar themes with warmth and sincerity. Sony Classics won't want anything remotely Kaufmanesque after Synecdoche, New York, but IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures will probably fight over this in the $2 million range for its potential in both the theatrical and VOD arenas.
· Bronson. It may turn out to be this year's Wrestler — not for any stirring actorly comebacks but rather for an edgy tour de force take on crime, celebrity and class as seen through the psychotic eyes of Charlie Bronson (Tom Hardy), Britain's most notorious prisoner. Hardy will pull out an Eric Bana-style prison-saga breakthrough thanks to director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose Pusher Trilogy endures as one of the decade's great (and greatly underrated) cinematic achievements and whose style fuses hyperrealistic violence with Scandinavian chamber drama. It will polarize Sundance and stimulate salivary glands around the Fox Searchlight and Magnolia condos, from one of which (probably Searchlight, who's seen genre risks like Night Watch pay off before) will come a $3 million buy late next week. Bet on it.