Correction: Dori Begley's position with Magnolia Pictures is described incorrectly. She is vice president of acquisitions for the company, not acquisitions director.
Every January in Park City, Utah, acquisition executives descend on the Sundance Film Festival in search of that year’s “sex, lies and videotape” or “El Mariachi” — the low-budget little-film-that-could that, with canny marketing and zeitgeisty timing, will go on to earn millions at the box office.
Sundance’s most famous Cinderellas have usually been fiction films — think “Little Miss Sunshine,” “An Education” and “Winter’s Bone.” But, increasingly, documentaries are fitting into the elusive glass slipper. In 2004, Morgan Spurlock came to Sundance with his film “Super Size Me,” about the health effects he suffered eating nothing but fast food for a month. The movie, which cost a reported $65,000 to make, wound up earning more than $10 million.
Tom Quinn was the executive who ran acquisitions for Samuel Goldwyn Films, which jointly acquired “Super Size Me” with Roadside Attractions. And at this year’s Sundance, Quinn was on the hunt again, recalling Spurlock’s film as “the beginning of this incredible arc of documentaries being legitimate business [propositions] and having the ability to change the way people think about what they do.”
Shortly after closing the “Super Size Me” deal, Quinn departed for Magnolia Pictures, where he is now senior vice president. During the past seven years, Quinn has acquired such documentaries as “Jesus Camp,” “Freakonomics” and “Man on Wire” for Magnolia, as well as such fiction features as “I Am Love,” “Let the Right One In” and Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.” Quinn regularly attends Sundance, the Berlin Film Festival, South by Southwest, Tribeca, Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, the American Film Market and, “every year, a new one.” (This year’s wild card is the Norwegian International Film Festival in August.)
“The most frightening thing of all is seeing a film you love,” he said, describing the emotional churn of the process. “Then you enter into torment and hell and dickering — and somehow, you come out the other end.”
When he arrived at Sundance in January, Quinn already had two nonfiction films in his sights: “Project Nim,” a heartbreaking portrait by “Man on Wire” director James Marsh about a chimp raised like a baby, and “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times,” about a newspaper navigating new media. The film, Quinn said, reminded him of the 2009 documentary “The September Issue,” about Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
“I remember coming to Sundance that year, and everybody was incredibly excited [about ‘The September Issue’],” he recalled ruefully. “I don’t read Vogue, so I never quite got it, and that was one of those films where I was out of the loop and my own personal space got in the way of a very exciting release.”
He was determined to stay very much in the loop on “Page One.”
On a cold, clear Friday morning at Sundance, while critics, reporters and studio executives found their seats at a screening of the Wall Street thriller “Margin Call,” Quinn could be seen thumbing his BlackBerry, periodically scanning the crowd for people he knew.
The night before, he had attended the festival’s opening-night screening of “Project Nim” in the packed Egyptian Theatre, where the film received a rousing response. After seeing a trailer, and based on his relationship with the filmmaker, Quinn had already made a preemptive offer for “Project Nim.” But he was outbid by HBO, which now owned theatrical, DVD and television rights to the film. HBO still needed a partner to release the movie in theaters, and Quinn wanted in.
After the previous night’s “Project Nim” screening, during the Q&A session, Quinn had sidled up to the film’s sales agent, Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun, hoping to negotiate a deal later on.
“Tonight?” he typed into his BlackBerry, showing it to Braun. The agent raised his pinkie and index finger in the “Let’s talk later” sign. Undeterred, Quinn — who at 41 possesses both boyish exuberance and the sharp-eyed opportunism of a skilled poker player — was optimistic Friday morning.
“The good news is, I think we’re way ahead of the game, having worked with HBO multiple times, having worked with James and [producer] Simon [Chinn] on ‘Man on Wire,’ ” he said. “We’ve already been married once before, let’s get married again! We don’t have to go on a date!”
By Sunday, Quinn still hadn’t walked the aisle, but he had added one more movie to his dance card: “Buck,” about real-life “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman, which had enjoyed a rapturous reception at its first public screening the day before. He was still circling “Project Nim” and was close to closing a deal on “Page One.” All three films, as it happened, were represented by Braun, who sold “Super Size Me” to Quinn in 2004.
Between screenings that day, Quinn traded e-mails and phone calls with Braun, trying to set up meetings. At midnight, he e-mailed his final offer for “Page One,” and Braun was now on his way to the condominium Magnolia had leased in Park City.
“I’d love to buy all three of these films,” Quinn said, sitting at a kitchen counter crowded with a case of Vitamin Water and bottles of ibuprofen, Aleve and Jameson. A few feet away, acquisition director Dori Begley made a sandwich, kibitzing. He continued: “I think it’s a very unlikely scenario, but I’m trying desperately to get all three.”
Earlier that day, after “Page One’s” premiere, Participant Media had indicated that it wanted to co-distribute the film, with an eye toward orchestrating the kind of social action campaign for which the company became famous, with films like “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Food, Inc.” Magnolia distributed “Food, Inc.,” and the fact that so many of the parties had worked together before made Quinn feel confident that his offer would be readily accepted.
Braun arrived at the condo around 12:15 a.m., taking off his parka and, after gently teasing Quinn about losing Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” last year, settled down to business.
“The last time we spoke about ‘Page One’ . . . we were at a point where we wanted to get to a higher number than what you’re talking about,” Braun said evenly, adding that, as a co-producer of the film, he was worried he would “either . . . go too far in one direction or another.” Then he named the amount of money he and director Andrew Rossi wanted for “Page One,” a figure in the mid-six figures. “That’s, um, a number that we’d be willing to close at.”
Quinn considered his response. “There are a couple of zeroes here that I don’t remember,” he said.
The better part of the next hour veered between hard-nosed dickering, good-natured banter, Braun’s phone calls to Rossi and war stories about 5 a.m. bidding wars, last-minute saves and the inevitable Ones That Got Away. “It’s funny, the things you regret and the things you don’t,” Braun said. “Last year, we had ‘Winter’s Bone,’ and there was a distributor who, it was theirs to lose — and they lost it. And they just can’t let it go. It’s stuck in their brain as a terrible misfire.”
Then, the two got down to the nitty-gritty. Quinn’s offer, it turned out, was exactly half the mid-six-figure Braun was asking for “Page One.” Quinn proposed splitting the difference. “Help me out here, guys,” he said, doing the math on a piece of paper.
“I feel like I’m a car salesman writing this down,” he quipped to Braun. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing this for me?”
Quinn arrived at a number that, if Canadian rights to the film were included, was tens of thousands of dollars south of Braun’s target. Braun hesitated.
“This is a [expletive] huge offer,” Quinn said flatly.
Begley piped in: “Huge.”
Quinn: “You know that.”
Braun: “Okay. Well, give me five minutes. Or less.”
As Braun left the room to call Rossi, Quinn called after him, “Here’s another problem: We have two other movies that you’re repping that I want to buy!”
After two more calls to Rossi, Braun told Quinn that the director had agreed to both of Magnolia’s offers, for the U.S. rights alone or combined with the Canadian rights at a higher number.
“We can close on Deal A and Deal B tonight, and you decide which one you want tomorrow,” Quinn said.
Braun: “Okay. Done.”
Quinn: “So we have a deal.”
Braun: “Can I make one call? I think we have a deal. . . .”
Quinn: “Come on, what is this?!”
Braun: “Okay, we have a deal.”
Quinn: “My man! We did it!”
The two hugged and shook hands. It was 1:10 a.m. Monday morning. Quinn and Begley poured champagne before going to work on a news release about Magnolia acquiring “Page One.”
As Braun prepared to leave for a meeting with another distributor about “Buck,” Quinn couldn’t resist a parting shot. “I just want to make sure we don’t lose focus on ‘Project Nim,’ ” he said. “I get the feeling that we’re going to lose ‘Buck.’ But I’ve gotta say, your team is going to hate not working with us, and I think you know it.”
Quinn was right: He did lose “Buck,” which Braun sold to IFC Films’ sister company Sundance Selects, a few hours after he left the Magnolia condo celebrating with champagne at 6 a.m.
But the cruelest cut came with “Project Nim,” an acquisition Magnolia all but had in the bag when Quinn went to bed Monday night. At 10 the next morning, he received a call. The deal was off.
“We went from an extreme high to all of a sudden the exact opposite end, within the shortest span of time,” Quinn said Tuesday, his eyes shadowed by lack of sleep, his face looking drawn. He was at the condo again, dejectedly checking e-mail on his laptop. “I love what we do. It’s what gets you up in the morning. . . . And when these things don’t go as you hoped them to go, it’s tough. But when they do go right, it’s a drug.”
Quinn flipped through the Sundance catalogue, combing for titles that were still up for grabs.
“ ‘Reagan?’ DVD’s available,” he said to himself. “It’s more of a library title, but I think it will have some value.”
He tapped out a few e-mails on his computer, then quickly turned philosophical about losing “Buck” and “Project Nim,” which eventually went to Roadside Attractions. He had, after all, snagged “one of the the three top docs at Sundance.” If Magnolia had gotten two of them and he were another distributor, he allowed, “I’d be furious,” and “Here we are in January. At this date next year, it will be very exciting to see where these films end up” in terms of “nominations and box office.”
On June 17, “Page One,” subtitled “Inside the New York Times,” opened in New York, the same day as “Buck.” Each averaged an impressive $16,000-plus per screen.
“Both films could find considerable summer legs,” the Web site indieWIRE predicted that weekend, “though at this point that seems more likely for ‘Buck.’ ”
opened Friday at Landmark E Street and Bethesda Row. “Buck” is playing at Landmark Bethesda Row and AMC Loews Shirlington. “Project Nim” is set to open in Washington on July 22.