Speaking to a long-time buyer at Sundance as she waited for her flight home to Los Angeles, she said of the 2012 festival, “This was a weird year. There was nothing that felt like lightning in a bottle, and nothing that screamed, ‘Buy me!’ either. There was a lot of nice stuff, perfectly good movies, but I didn’t HAVE to have any of it.” So basically Sundance 2012 was a birthday party where you liked all of your gifts fine but even your best friend boffed getting you the one thing you really wanted. For the record, that buyer walked out of Sundance empty handed, deciding to save for the market at Berlin next month.

At the beginning of Sundance, I listed some movies that seemed to have commercial appeal, films we’d likely get to see in theaters and have a chance to support. A few of those titles sold, such as Arbitrage and The Surrogate—which got one of the biggest deals at $6 million—and others remain unsold but had interest from buyers and may close deals in the coming weeks, like Safety Not Guaranteed* and Bachelorette (although one audience member told me the Kirsten Dunst comedy was more uncomfortable than funny and would be a tough sell to audiences). Beasts of the Southern Wild, which sounded twee and obscure (young girl in a maybe-magical bayou town lives with animals and a distant father), got some of the best reviews of the festival and it’s on Fox Searchlight to find a way to sell it to audiences.

Last year forty films left Park City with deals; this year twenty-two did. Given that that record crop of Sundance films in 2011 yielded no real box office wins (Margin Call was one of the most successful of the 2011 class with $5.3 million in receipts) and only 3 Oscar nominations, buyers were much more cautious this year, often balking if a film didn’t have a clear, ready-made audience for it. Take Bachelorette, a female-driven wedding comedy that clearly wants to capitalize on the success of Bridesmaids. But it turned out to be more mean-spirited than anyone expected, to the point that people wondered who exactly would find it funny. So it didn’t sell. (I do think it will in good time, though, and will be in theaters with a very carefully managed advertising campaign.)

(Lainey: several people I spoke with coming out of Bachelorette said it was “too mean, even for LA people”. Didn’t actually know that was possible.)

What does this cautious market for movies mean? It means we’re probably in for a year like last, in which some of the movies appeal to some of the people but nothing really catches fire with everyone. And I wonder what such a cautious approach to buying could mean for the foreign markets like Berlin and Cannes—will they be just as cautious or will they see more action from those buyers who waited?

Mostly though, what I think we’re seeing is an unintended side effect of the changing technology in film distribution. Indies have been the first movies to realize money from video on demand delivery, and some distributors, like Magnolia/Magnet, have had a great deal of success with the VOD/theatrical piggy-back model (releasing a movie on demand either simultaneously with theatrical release, or even before). But the larger companies still aren’t sure how to maximize revenue from this emerging technology.

A lot of the caution in film buying (and, in a larger sense, filmmaking in general), is that we’re in the middle of a huge sea change in technology that is completely revolutionizing everything about how we make and see movies. Until the distributors are confident that they can realize profits from VOD delivery, I think we’ll continue to see cautious buying and lower sell prices.

*Per Variety, FilmDistrict has bought Safety Not Guaranteed.