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Sundance's 'hit or miss' guessing game begins

Buyers at last year's Sundance Film Festival made big-money bets on two very different films: a thriller starring Ryan Reynolds and a dramedy about a lesbian couple and their sperm donor. If you were a Las Vegas bookie looking at box office odds, you'd have put your chips on Reynolds and his stuck-in-a-coffin story.

But "Buried" was a conspicuous flop for distributor Lionsgate, taking in less than half the $3 million the company spent to acquire it. Meanwhile, Lisa Cholodenko's dysfunctional-family tale "The Kids Are All Right" turned into a national conversation piece, grossing $21 million in domestic release for buyer Focus Features, winning two Golden Globes and looking likely to land several Oscar nominations next week.

When it comes to predicting the commercial success of independent movies, festival heat is rarely a reliable prophet. When the world's largest independent film gathering begins tonight in Park City, Utah, film buyers will comb the snowy streets for this year's "Kids," even as they acknowledge that trying to gauge how a Sundance movie will play with ordinary audiences is about as exact as throwing darts blindfolded.

"You have to go to a lot of movies with an open mind and a semi-open wallet," said James Schamus, chief executive of Focus. "But you still have no idea what will work."

Ever since a tiny movie called the "The Blair Witch Project" came out of nowhere in Park City in 1999 and turned into one of the most profitable films of all time, buyers have come hoping to land a title that turns into a financial windfall. Last year, many movies with presumed commercial potential fizzled -- consider the Kristen Stewart-starring "Welcome to the Rileys" or the Katie Holmes picture "The Romantics." Meanwhile, difficult dramas such as "Winter's Bone" and "Blue Valentine" -- and documentaries such as "Waiting for 'Superman' " and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" -- turned into specialty hits.

This year's crop of movies has proved particularly tricky to assess ahead of time, given the abundance of titles from emerging and lesser-known filmmakers. (Second-year festival director John Cooper has sought to include edgier, less commercial offerings.)

"Last year was upside-down, but this year feels even more wide open," said Jonathan Dana, a producer and longtime sales agent of independently financed films.

Among the acquisition targets mentioned in an informal survey of buyers are "Little Birds," a coming-of-age drama starring Kate Bosworth from the producer of "Blue Valentine"; the Kevin Spacey-starring "Margin Call," a ripped-from-the-headlines story about the financial crisis; "The Ledge," a thriller about faith and a potential suicide; the Paul Rudd comedy "My Idiot Brother"; "Salvation Boulevard," a dark comedy with Pierce Brosnan playing a wayward evangelist; and "Higher Ground," a spiritual drama that marks the directorial debut of Vera Farmiga.

Kevin Smith ("Clerks," "Dogma") has shifted gears from his typical comedies with a coming-of-age horror movie titled "Red State," another hot sales target. He made headlines by saying he's considering staging an in-theater auction for rights to the independent feature after it premieres Sunday.

On the documentary side, buyers are keen on a look at a Liberian warlord ("The Redemption of General Butt Naked") and "Magic Bus," an exploration of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters directed by Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for "Taxi to the Dark Side."

Some distributors, meanwhile, have put their markers on films before the festival even starts.

Sony Pictures Classics announced Tuesday that it has bought rights to the Michael Shannon-starring horror-drama "Take Shelter." HBO snapped up "Project Nim," the story of a chimpanzee trained to think like a human and directed by Oscar winner James Marsh ("Man on Wire"). Oprah Winfrey's newly launched OWN Network has acquired television rights to several documentaries, including "Becoming Chaz," a look at the sex-change operation of Sonny and Cher's daughter, Chastity Bono.

Most of these deals occurred in quiet negotiating sessions for prices well below $1 million, a sharp contrast from the all-night, seven-figure bidding wars that gripped the festival just a few years ago. Although one or two films will likely be sold that way in Park City, many more deals will be concluded in low-key sessions days or even weeks after the festival ends Jan. 30.

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