Studios aren't rushing to buy films with big names like Robert De Niro and Tom Hanks

Only at Sundance would you find Robert De Niro opening for U2. On Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Eccles Theater — the festival’s showcase venue — the premiere screening of the IMAX documentary U23D was preceded by a showing of De Niro’s latest, the star-studded Hollywood satire What Just Happened? While U2 fever filled the air from Saturday afternoon on, expectations were also high for Happened as a house packed with buyers eagerly took their seats.

The movie — in which De Niro stars as a beleaguered movie producer — features Sean Penn and Bruce Willis drolly playing themselves, and the crowd laughed boisterously at the film’s insider yuks. But it’s what didn’t happen after the screening that told you everything you need to know about the first half of Sundance 2008. At press time, not only was De Niro’s star-packed comedy still waiting for a distribution deal, but Sunshine Cleaning — an audience favorite starring Emily Blunt and new It Girl Amy Adams — was still up for grabs. Even Tom Hanks hadn’t drummed up a buyer at press time for The Great Buck Howard, a magic-themed dramedy in which he briefly appears opposite John Malkovich. (Not that he’s worried — this is Tom Hanks, after all. ”I think we’ve made a good movie, and it’ll come out one way or another,” he told EW.)

Instead, the biggest deals — which didn’t begin closing until day 6 of the festival — focused on projects with more Sundance-friendly casts: Choke, a mordant crowd-pleaser about a sex addict (Sam Rockwell) and his insane mother (Anjelica Huston), was snapped up by Fox Searchlight for a reported $5 million; the Luke Wilson feature Henry Poole Is Here went to Overture Films for a reported $3.5 million; and Focus Features nabbed the Steve Coogan-Catherine Keener comedy Hamlet 2 for $10 million, one of the richest deals in Sundance history.

Conventional wisdom said that studios would spend more millions than ever this year to shore up their film slates, in light of the current writers’ strike. But the new round of informal talks between the WGA and producers may have stopped any potential panic buying. The cautious pace of Sundance sales so far could also mean that studios are learning a few lessons from years past. Take 2007, when two of the festival’s big multimillion-dollar acquisitions — Grace Is Gone and Joshua — grabbed huge buzz before eventually flopping. (Their combined purchase price: $7.7 million. Their combined theatrical gross: $518,968.) ”I think intense coverage from the media talking about what films from last year didn’t perform made the buyers nervous,” says Sundance fixture John Sloss, who reps several films each year. Adds Michael Schaefer, a VP of acquisitions for Summit Entertainment, ”People just don’t want to overpay anymore.” Or maybe, in the end, this year’s first-half lineup — heavy on dark comedies like Choke and Sunshine Cleaning — simply wasn’t strong enough to generate the usual heat in chilly Park City. Says Art Linson, the producer whose book What Just Happened? is based on, ”People usually buy things because they want to — not ’cause they have to.”