LOS ANGELES — By the time the first weekend of the Sundance Film Festival wraps up each January, most film buyers already have started packing their bags. But they’ll need to bring extra underwear and socks to Park City, Utah, in 2012 — the festival’s premiere categories, where the most potentially commercial films are placed, are overflowing with new works, and none of the 15 narrative films has a distribution deal in place, while most of the eight documentaries are looking for a home too.
Unlike the competition films, which are often made by first-time or largely unknown filmmakers with up-and-coming actors, the premiere movies usually star familiar names and come from established directors. The 2012 lineup, announced Monday, includes new movies from Spike Lee (“Red Hook Summer,” a follow-up to his “Do the Right Thing”); Stephen Frears (“Lay the Favorite,” a gambling story); Joe Berlinger (a documentary about Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album); and Stacy Peralta (who made “Dogtown and Z-Boys” and returns to skateboarders with his documentary “Bones Brigade”).
Actors in the premiere movies include Richard Gere, Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Cooper, Bruce Willis, Chris Rock, Sigourney Weaver, David Duchovny and Elizabeth Olsen (who broke out in Sundance this past January with “Martha Marcy May Marlene”).
“The news is that the weekend now ends on Tuesday,” said John Cooper, the director of the festival, the nation’s top showcase for movies made outside the studio system.
Earlier this year, Fox Searchlight came to Sundance with two movies — “Win Win” and “Cedar Rapids.” Come January, like the other leading specialized film companies, it will have no films in the premiere section.
While many distribution deals were struck at the 2011 festival, quite a few did not pan out at the local art house.
Among the most successful festival acquisitions was the Wall Street drama “Margin Call,” which despite being released by Roadside Attractions simultaneously in theaters and video-on-demand has grossed $4.7 million at the box office. Sony Pictures Classics fared relatively well, grabbing “Take Shelter” ($1.5 million to date) and “The Guard” ($5.3 million) for relatively modest costs. Fox Searchlight drummed up so-so business for “Martha Marcy May Marlene” ($2.7 million) but stumbled with its purchases of “Another Earth” (box office $1.3 million) and “The Art of Getting By” ($1.4 million).
As with any film, Sundance acquisitions have to be measured by the purchase and marketing costs compared with their theatrical returns. Paramount and Indian Paintbrush’s “Like Crazy,” which the two companies bought for about $4 million, failed to take off, grossing $2.9 million since coming out in late October. Similarly, the Weinstein Co. spared little expense promoting the wide release of “Our Idiot Brother,” which makes its $24.8 million haul look less impressive.
For the 2012 edition, Cooper and programming head Trevor Groth picked several movies from several directors who are Sundance veterans. The alumni narrative directors include James Marsh (who is following his documentary “Project Nim” with the terrorism drama “Shadow Dancer”), Josh Radnor (segueing from “happythankyoumoreplease” to the love story “Liberal Arts”) and Lee Toland Krieger (who made “The Vicious Kind” and will return to Sundance with the romance “Celeste and Jesse Forever”).
Besides Peralta and Berlinger, the familiar documentarians include Rory Kennedy (who was in Sundance with “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” in 2007 and will be back with “Ethel,” a portrait of her mother, Ethel Kennedy). Other key documentaries include “The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia,” by James Redford, the son of Sundance founder Robert Redford; “Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap,” whose directors include Ice-T; and “About Face,” a look at aging among supermodels Isabella Rossellini, Christie Brinkley, Beverly Johnson, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Paulina Porizkova, Jerry Hall and Christy Turlington.
Cooper said that even if many of the narrative premieres are cast with recognizable actors their plots are more idiosyncratic than one might expect. “I sense that the whole game has changed — there’s been a market correction,” Cooper said. “They are not worrying about commerciality but doing what they do best.”
Buyers said that several titles will be critical distributor screenings. They include director Nicholas Jarecki’s hedge-fund drama “Arbitrage,” Julie Delpy’s love story “2 Days in New York” (she also stars in it), Leslye Headland’s wedding story “Bachelorette” and Josh Radner’s “Liberal Arts,” in which he stars along with Olsen.
The event runs Jan. 19 to 29.