Midnight at the Sundance Film Festival is usually when most Hollywood types are just starting to party. But at this year's showcase of independent film, many film buyers will be heading in a different direction: late-night sales screenings.
The 26th annual festival, which kicked off Thursday in Park City, Utah, has yielded the art house breakouts "An Inconvenient Truth," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Reservoir Dogs." Over the next 10 days, though, distributors could be less interested in potential award-winners than carnage and comedy.
With the ultra low-budget "Paranormal Activity" emerging last year as one of the most profitable movies in Hollywood history — made for about $15,000, the supernatural story grossed $107 million domestically — there's fresh Sundance focus on Park City at Midnight, the festival section dedicated to inexpensive horror works and often raunchy comedies.
It's the same sleep-is-overrated programming slot that brought us the thriller hits "The Blair Witch Project," "Saw" and "Open Water," and independent distributors — who have been suffering through their own slasher story with corporate cutbacks and closures — are praying there's another such film lurking in the wee hours at America's most prestigious film festival.
"'Paranormal Activity' is clearly an anomaly. But what you can draw from it is that people don't care how much a movie costs if it's something they really want to see," said veteran film sales agent Jonathan Dana, who is expecting intensified interest in low-budget movies in both the Midnight section and Next, a new Sundance category for movies costing less than $500,000 to make. That's about what "Avatar" spent in an afternoon of filming.
The backers of some of the Midnight films are confident their movies will play on their own terms and also create ticket-selling word of mouth.
"This is a movie that definitely will not just blend in," said Peter Safran, a producer of the claustrophobic thriller "Buried," which stars Ryan Reynolds ("The Proposal"). "And we have a star in Reynolds who can get on talk shows and actually promote the movie."
In addition to "Buried," in which Reynolds plays an American truck driver in Iraq held for ransom while confined in an underground coffin, one of the more talked-about Midnight movies is "High School," a pothead comedy about a valedictorian and a stoner who join forces to battle drug testing. Both films are looking for distribution deals.
Warren Zide, a producer of "High School," said he's hopeful buyers and audiences alike will compare the film favorably to "American Pie" (which Zide also produced) and "The Hangover" because of "High School's" originality and irreverence. "It's a different kind of comedy, and that's what makes it commercial," Zide said. "It's a profitable genre to be in right now."
It wasn't just "Paranormal Activity" that proved the point: 2009's biggest return-on-investment releases included Sony's "District 9" and Warner Bros.' "The Hangover," movies where the positive word of mouth was more remarkable than the production budgets.
Higher-profile pictures up for sale at Sundance will include the Natalie Portman film "Hesher," the Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams romantic drama "Blue Valentine," Ben Affleck in the layoff story "The Company Men," and "The Extra Man," a story about an unlikely friendship from the flmmakers behind "American Splendor."