The 25th Sundance Film Festival opened on Thursday with founder Robert Redford sounding an optimistic note for cinematic art and an artful movie challenging audiences to laugh through the pain of an imperfect world.
The Australian animated film Mary and Max, a tale of misfits on opposite sides of the globe who find friendship by becoming pen pals, was described by festival director Geoffrey Gilmore as being about "compassion, love, friendship and ideas".
It seemed a fitting opening for the top United States festival for independent film; while it illustrates the broadening of "indie" movies – it has a global perspective and uses stop-motion technology and clay figures – Mary and Max reminds audiences that films made outside Hollywood's mainstream often deal with human frailty.
Yet, the mood was anything but upbeat with predictions the largest American showcase for independent movies may look smaller this year to filmmakers hoping for offers from a major studio.
At least four studio specialty labels have folded or cut back since last year's festival. Those making the trip to Park City, Utah, where Sundance runs until January 25, are shopping for bargains.
"It's a buyers' market," said Michael Schaefer, head of acquisitions at Summit Entertainment LLC, the independent studio that released Twilight. "People are more cautious about how much they're willing to spend."
Hollywood's appetite for independent films is shrinking as studios reduce spending and shift their focus to making sequels and big-budget films that are better bets for profitability. The result is lower expectations for filmmakers who have found a market at Sundance.
"We're like everyone else, tighter with everything we're doing," said Hal Sadoff, who heads the independent film unit at Los Angeles talent agency International Creative Management. "We're very conscious of not bringing up too many films."
ICM is shopping three movies this year, Sadoff said. "The days of going up with 10 or 15 films and trying to sell them are over."
Time Warner Inc. closed its Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse units last year, and merged New Line into parent Warner Bros. ThinkFilm, a distributor focused on small-budget films, filed for bankruptcy protection, and Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Vantage has scaled back releases.
Picturehouse and Time Warner's HBO together bought Rocket Science in 2007. The movie cost $6 million (Dh22m) to make and took in $59,000 at US theatres, according to Internet Movie Database, which tracks industry sales.
Still, Redford believes independent filmmakers will find new ways to make movies and reach fans, and at Thursday's premiere, he saw the upcoming inauguration of US President-elect Barack Obama as a harbinger for change in the art of cinema.
"I'm actually thinking positive because when times are bad, there's always opportunity for artists," Redford said.
This year's festival features more than a dozen name-driven films that are looking for a distributor, including I Love You Phillip Morris, a love story featuring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, and Brooklyn's Finest, a police drama showcasing Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle. Paul Giamatti appears in Cold Souls, about an actor who undergoes a procedure to separate himself from his soul.
"There are more movies without distributors than ever before at Sundance," said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.
ICM scored one success before Sundance opened. Tyson, a documentary about boxer Mike Tyson, was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics last week. Other films ICM hopes to sell include Arlen Faber, a comedy starring Jeff Daniels, and Good Hair, a comic documentary by Chris Rock about African-American hairstyles.
Founded 30 years ago by Redford, now 71, Sundance has become the premier US festival for independent movies. This year the event will screen 218 features, documentaries and shorts, selected from 9,293 submissions. That compares with 8,731 entries last year.
A high-profile sale at Sundance is no guarantee of commercial success. Last year's Hamlet 2, a comedy purchased by Universal Pictures' Focus Features for $10m, returned $4.9m in global ticket sales, according to Boxofficemojo.com.
Cutbacks at the studios and the US recession probably reduced expectations for filmmakers long before Sundance convened, said Dawn Hudson, executive director of Film Independent, sponsor of the Los Angeles Film Festival and the independent-film Spirit Awards.
"This always was a risky business. Now the risks are more apparent," Hudson said. Sellers this year may be more open to alternative forms of distribution, such as a direct release to video, video-on-demand or cable networks, she added.
HBO said it acquired a documentary, Burma VJ, about journalists in Myanmar. Also present at Sundance are New York-based IFC Films, focused on video-on-demand.
Alternative avenues tend to provide smaller rewards, said Michael and Mark Polish, director and writer, respectively, of Manure, a comedy about the fertiliser business that premieres at Sundance on January 21.
A studio release offers the potential for box-office sales, in addition to DVD revenue, video-on-demand and sales to broadcast and television networks. Sales outside of theatres, which typically account for 60 per cent of total revenue from the brothers' films, are more lucrative when backed by studio marketing, Michael Polish said.
"If they're not going into theatrical release, you have to make a cheaper movie," Polish said.
The Polish brothers, known for comedies, including The Astronaut Farmer, have gotten studio deals for their five previous films. They're aiming for another one with Manure, which cost close to $10m to make and features Billy Bob Thornton and Tea Leoni. Manure will be the brothers' third film at Sundance. Their approach to selling the movie will be the same as always, they said.
"It's like bringing apples to the farmers market," Michael said. "We don't put a price on it. We just bring the apples."