Business happenings at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival

At the Sundance Film Festival even the most innocent gestures are subject to scrutiny. When midway through a screening of the Aussie comedy The Castle, Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein abruptly left the Park City Library Center, the packed house figured the hotly contested movie was about to be sold. Not so, explains Castle exec producer Michael Hirsh: “Harvey was taking a bathroom break.”

Eventually, Miramax got down to business, shelling out $6 mil for The Castle. And that wasn’t the only big-ticket purchase: The company anted up $2.75 million for Jerry and Tom and signed a $6 million deal with director Brad Anderson for Next Stop, Wonderland and his next two films.

Being Sundance’s biggest spender meant Miramax also became the fest’s biggest target. Its acquisitions “are statement buys that don’t reflect any bidding wars,” insisted October Films chief Bingham Ray, who spent under $1 million for the Ally Sheedy lesbian drama High Art. “Harvey just wants everyone to know that Miramax is the s — -.” Says Miramax’s Mark Gill: “That is so far out of our minds. The main reason to be in on these deals is to get the filmmakers’ next films.” Similarly, LIVE Entertainment deflected criticism of its purchase of the quirky [PI] by describing the expenditure as a long-term investment in director Darren Aronofsky that cost “a fraction of $1 million.” Says Live president Amir Malin, “He has the goods to become a great filmmaker.”

Distributors, still smarting from the failure of ’97 Sundance films The Myth of Fingerprints and The House of Yes, also questioned Trimark Pictures’ buying spree. The mini-indie shelled out $2.5 mil for Slam, even though ardent fans concede it’ll be a tough sell, and paid $1 mil for Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, a gay love story.

Sony Classics copresident Michael Barker believes many of these films are destined to be classic cases of Sundance hype, which is why he was content window-shopping. “Films that bordered on the experimental may be considered Sundance finds,” says Barker, “but they won’t necessarily be marketplace successes.” Time and a lower altitude will tell.