Hotel and condo bookings are off for the 11-day festival that opened Thursday. The number of parties may be down, and the ones that do happen are likely to be less lavish. Frugal-minded film distributors are more cautious than ever to avoid the classic Sundance trap of paying too much for movies that will never make their money back.
"It is a buyer's market, 100 percent. People are cost-conscious, but at the same time, they don't want to miss an opportunity to find a movie that can break out," said Michael Schaefer, head of acquisitions for Summit Entertainment, the company behind the hit "Twilight." "We'd always love to find another movie, but we don't have to. We really want to make sure we maintain a healthy balance between the right price and the right movie."
Sundance hotel and condo rentals have been running 8 percent behind last year's, said Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.
Yet by the morning of opening day, the festival had sold 218,000 of 245,000 available seats for films showing in Park City, Salt Lake City and other Utah venues, about 5 percent ahead of 2008 sales, said Linda Pfafflin, the festival's ticketing manager.
That could mean local residents are snapping up more tickets this time, Pfafflin said.
Sundance always draws hangers-on - celebrity gawkers, businesses using the festival to promote products or stars themselves who show up for parties though they have no involvement with the films. The lighter hotel bookings could mean those crowds will be smaller, not necessarily a bad thing for festival organizers who find such outsiders a distraction from the main event of showcasing movies.
"If some of those people aren't here, hallelujah," Sundance spokeswoman Brooks Addicott said.
Hotels were trying last-minute deals to fill empty rooms, offering an extra night free or easing requirements for the minimum number of nights, Malone said.
"I even saw a property earlier this season offering `book six nights, get a free pair of skis,"' Malone said.
Demand is down for property space to hold parties, Malone said, while caterers have told him that clients are spending less on the parties they do stage.
Even the ranks of publicists who swarm Sundance look lighter this year. John Murphy - president of Murphy PR, which is handling seven Sundance films - said he received e-mails "from other publicists who were going to go and now aren't going who now have rooms they need to unload. That's never happened before. It used to be you had to book months in advance or you're out of luck."
Sundance has been known for bidding wars on hot titles, among them such eventual hits as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "In the Bedroom." But distributors also have been burned on films such as "Happy, Texas" and last year's "Hamlet 2" that had great Sundance buzz but failed to find an audience.
Titles available this time include the cop drama "Brooklyn's Finest," with Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle; the melodrama "The Greatest," with Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon; and the gigolo tale "Spread," with Ashton Kutcher and Anne Heche.
Richard Kelly, who started his career with the 2001 Sundance film "Donnie Darko," returns to the festival as a producer on Bobcat Goldthwait's dark comedy "World's Greatest Dad," which is up for sale.
Kelly and producing partner Sean McKittrick said it's impossible to predict how busy the acquisitions scene will be, since it all comes down to the films themselves. But Kelly noted that Hollywood ended 2008 with a strong box-office showing, a sign that the movie business remains healthy despite hard times.
"Thank God, people are still going," Kelly said. "As long as people are still going to see movies, we're in the supply business, and there's a supply for 2009 that needs to be filled."
By David Germain