Going into Sundance 2017, the hottest acquisition title was Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” written by comedian-star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, based on their true-life cross-cultural romance, and produced by Judd Apatow. It promised all the elements you would want from a breakout Sundance movie: comedy, pathos, authenticity and two rising stars, Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, along with Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents.
Why not buy it sight unseen? “It was a movie you see at the Eccles and bid on, especially with a comedy,” said one bidder.
The movie turned out to be that rare creature: a hilarious and humane love story, not saccharine, that feels real.
A host of buyers, from A24 to Weinstein Co., attended the enthusiastic Eccles Friday premiere, after which the players with the deepest-pockets entered the bidding — Netflix, Open Road and others dropped out early when the numbers hit eight figures. In the end, Paramount, Fox Searchlight and Universal/Focus Features — the studio where Apatow is based — duked it out with Amazon for the movie.
They all made their creative presentations to Showalter, Apatow and the other “The Big Sick” producers at one-hour sessions at their Park City condo. Amazon’s team of 10, including Amazon Studios worldwide head of motion pictures Jason Ropell, Ted Hope, Bob Berney, Josh Kramer, Scott Foundas, and Ram Murali, emerged victorious with a deal worth $12 million for most worldwide rights.
So how did Amazon manage to acquire the best movie at Sundance 2016 followed by what’s likely to emerge the best — and most commercially accessible — movie of Sundance 2017?
First, they made a success of “Manchester By the Sea” ($39 million domestic), which is likely to score multiple Oscar nominations January 24th and could wind up the highest-grossing Sundance movie in history.
Second, Amazon has proved to be an able distributor, partnering on the “Manchester” theatrical release with Roadside Attractions. (Amazon has not yet revealed its partner for a planned July platform release, but presumably they’ll pact again with Roadside.) Amazon offers an attractive combination of theatrical distributor and indie entrepreneur willing to try new things as well as the backing of an established company eager to support a movie via mighty Amazon.com and IMDb.
“They had the most enthusiasm,” Apatow told IndieWire via email. “Loving the film is essential. They are a young film company and we knew we would be an important film for them. It is so easy to get lost out there. We were also very impressed with the campaign for ‘Manchester By The Sea.’ That is a complex film and their marketing and distribution has been really impressive. Being Amazon, they have many innovative ways to tell people about our movie and we are excited to collaborate with them on the campaign.”
Finally, Amazon’s willingness to stick within Hollywood’s theatrical windows — in an increasingly VOD world — marks a huge advantage with filmmakers eager to achieve a broad theatrical release with all the bells and whistles a big marketing and publicity campaign can bring.