Selling Lovelace at Sundance

Amanda Seyfried at the 'Lovelace' premiere.

Amanda Seyfried stars as Linda Lovelace

Eccles Center in Park City, Utah—known to Sundance veterans as “The Big House”—is so massive that my first thought was that the Rolling Stones would have had a tough time selling this joint out at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night in the middle of a frigid January.

The night in question was last Tuesday, Jan. 22. The occasion was the world premiere of a film that I wrote, Lovelace, in which Amanda Seyfried stars as 1970s porn icon-turned-women’s rights activist Linda Lovelace.

Team Lovelace flew into Park City with a bit of a tailwind. Ms. Seyfried had received raves for her performance as Cosette in Les Misérables, there were encouraging results from two focus groups, and there was a generally healthy buzz surrounding the film. But that’s how every ghost story starts, isn’t it? Haunted whispers from around the campfires of Sundance, Cannes and Toronto—an enticing cabin in the mountains, a super-sexy young woman about to take her top off and a group of friends high on camaraderie and optimism—three weeks later, everybody is telemarketing or teaching English in Thailand.

That’s the dirty little secret about the film industry (well, one of many, actually). You can test and prod and predict all you want, but the clinically detached truth is that you never have any clue if your movie is any good until you get it in front of an unbiased audience.

There are probably 100 different variables that factor into whether a project is christened a success or not, but none is more important than landing a distribution deal. For movies like Lovelace that head into festivals showroom-shined and in search of a distributor, world premieres are similar to the first 15 minutes of a kidnapping—early action points to a happy ending and early silence hints at long, deep darkness in the days ahead.

Everybody knows this harsh reality. That’s why, when I sat down and saw that every single one of the theater’s 1,300 seats was filled, I instantly regretted my decision to attend the screening sober. Like any good self-loathing writer, I spend most of my days hiding under my bed waiting for the fraud police to kick in my door. So, on high-stakes, high-wire nights like last Tuesday, I have a tendency to catastrophize. My beautiful, enchanting and endlessly understanding wife, Kate, is often dragooned into action as a human landing beacon as I drink my way past charming and take on the aspect of a distressed Cessna with its engines on fire, looking for a strip of flat earth upon which I can land my wounded pride.

But there I was, sober and scared stiff, squirming and stressing and overanalyzing every cough and giggle and whimper from the audience. Yes, there were laughs and tears, just like I intended when I wrote the script, but, I wondered as the credits began to roll, were they enough? A smattering of applause began to spread through the theater. At first it felt awkward, almost polite. But then it grew in tone and urgency into what even I had to admit sounded like authentic praise.

Moments later, I was called onstage by my great friends and collaborators, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. On my way up to join the producers and cast for the Q&A, I caught sight of something—a brief flicker of shadow and shapes—that would take me a few seconds to process.

As I took my place onstage, I realized what I had just seen. It was Harvey Weinstein huddled with our financiers, Millennium/Nu Image, out in the hall, away from all distractions. It was as if I was living the first line of my obituary.

Mr. Weinstein isn’t just any distributor. He is an iconic, mercurial embodiment of aesthetic affirmation. He is congratulations incarnate.

Forty minutes later—before I even had a chance to reach for the champagne tray at the after-party—the news began to spread. We had, indeed, officially been acquired by Radius – The Weinstein Company. And for the rest of the night—a night filled with handshakes and back-slaps and congratulations—all I could hear was the applause coming from 1,300 people cheering in The Big House.