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Docs are hot at Sundance

With the dramatic feature films that have opened so far falling rather flat with critics and industry, the action here in Park City are the non-fiction films on tap at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. So far, documentary films have definitely dominated the proceedings, stirring the most buzz and making concrete business deals.

In fact, the activity began on the opening day last Thursday. Zeitgeist Films, a New York-based specialty distributor, kicked off the proceedings with an announced acquisition of Chinese director Yung Chang's UP THE YANGTZE (screening in the World Documentary Competition). The film looks at the effects of the Three Gorges Dam project, the largest project of its kind in the world, and how it has displaced millions of people and destroyed national landmarks and historic villages. The film had its world premiere in November at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and will be released in US theaters in April.

HBO Documentary Films, the non-fiction unit of the pay television giant, has been very active. The company picked up US rights to ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED, a chronicle of the Polish-born film director’s forced exile after being condemned of statutory rape in the 1970s (the film was sold to The Weinstein Company for international rights). Word now comes that HBO has acquired the domestic television rights to THE BLACK LIST, a multiple-portrait film of some of the most fascinating and influential African-American icons, including such personalities as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sean Combs, Louis Gossett, Jr., Bill T. Jones, Vernon Jordan, Toni Morrison, Colin Powell, Chris Rock, Al Sharpton and Keenen Ivory Wayans. The film is produced and directed by former NY Times film critic Elvis Mitchell and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. The film has its world premiere in the American Spectrum section tomorrow night.

Sports cable network ESPN announced that it has acquired the soccer documentary KICKING IT, directed by Susan Koch. The film details the lives of seven soccer players from six countries as they participate in the 4th annual Homeless World Cup. ESPN will have exclusive television rights worldwide, with the Weinstein Company coming on board for international theatrical rights.

Finally, a worldwide sales announcement was made for the Festival’s Closing Night film, CSNY DÉJÀ VU. The film chronicles the 2007 Freedom of Speech Tour by the pop rock legendary group Crosby Stills Nash & Young (CSNY). The film, directed by musician Neil Young, under the pseudonym of Bernard Shakey, has been sold to international sales company Fortissimo Films. A North American theatrical deal is expected to be announced shortly.

Why documentaries have been hotter on the acquisitions front than narrative features is a little baffling. Firstly, documentary films tend to command a much lower asking price and it is clear that distributors are showing early reluctance to pay big dollars for narrative films that may be very iffy at the box office. Last year, companies paid multi-million pay days to such films as GRACE IS GONE, THE SAVAGES and STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING, which have all been very modest box office earners. Whether this cautious attitude will last until Festival’s end is still up in the air, but generally all it takes are a few big dollar pick-ups to turn the tide.

Sandy Mandelberger, Sundance FF Editor on fest21.com

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