The Sundance Festival reveals the state of the indie film market, and 2017 will be remembered as the year of Amazon Studios and Netflix. And given the festival’s robust TV and VR programs,, which were dominated by Google and Facebook/Oculus, there’s further digital disruption ahead.
According to one indie distributor, Sundance 2017’s valuations and sales are almost a third higher than last year. Put the same titles into the Sundance market two years ago, and they would have sold for far less. That’s because Netflix and Amazon Studios on the narrative side are dramatically driving up prices. “It’s just ridiculous what the digital guys are doing to the marketplace,” said one veteran indie CEO. “‘The Big Sick’ is a great little movie but it’s a $4 million -$6 million buy. There’s no logic to this model.”
However, Sundance has always been about the haves and the have-nots. Winners like writer-comedian Kumail Nanjianai’s true romance “The Big Sick,” which sold to Amazon for $12.5 million, and rap comedy “Patti Cake$,” which Fox Searchlight scooped up for $9.5 million, will get the marketing support to build the filmmakers’ and stars’ careers in a meaningful way.
For many other films, their fate lies in the ill-defined world of VOD and streaming, where you don’t always know how many people see the film. Often, when sellers can’t get the ideal release, filmmakers will go for the big Netflix dollars that will yield the red “A Netflix Original” logo in front of their films. It makes their investors happy. (Or, they go for that standard-issue Amazon Video Direct deal that won’t do much for investors, but is better than nothing.)
Thanks in no small part to Sundance’s long nurturing, the niche that’s thriving is documentaries. (Two of the five Oscar-nominated docs this year debuted at Sundance 2016: “Life, Animated” and “O.J.: Made in America.”) Most are backed by various television entities, who book theatrical runs only to qualify for the Oscars. In the age of Netflix, ESPN, CNN, Showtime, HBO and Amazon, why schlep to the theater?
(This is why I have no issue with Ezra Edelman’s five-part, eight-hour “O.J.: Made in America,” which defies categorization as film or TV. It’s all one big video medium now, and if Netflix can carve up “Making a Murderer,” or Amazon can slice and dice Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour Grateful Dead Sundance documentary “A Long Strange Trip,” why not?)
Sundance 2017 launched a raft of strong documentaries, including three about Syria. “Cartel Land” director Matt Heineman’s portrait of a group of dissident journalists from Raqqa, “City of Ghosts,” sparked a bidding war. As did Bryan Fogel’s surreal Russian doping expose “Icarus,” which UTA sold finally to Netflix for $5 million, preferring a one-stop global deal.
Paramount will release Participant’s climate-change agitprop starring Al Gore, “An Inconvenient Sequel,” in theaters. Will it do as much business ($52 million worldwide) as the original 10 years ago? Unlikely. Meanwhile, Netflix will push Jeff Orlowski’s urgent save-your-planet message, Sundance pickup “Chasing Coral,” to 190 countries. (Still, it’s too bad that this gorgeous underwater exploration of the impact of global warming on coral reefs won’t be seen on the big screen.)
“NOBODY SPEAK: The Trials of a Free Press” director Brian Knappenberger went with Netflix over IFC, said seller Josh Braun, partly because he hoped WWE star Hulk Hogan would lure more people to watch the doc who might not show up to your local arthouse. Otherwise, he’s preaching to the choir. (Full disclosure: My daughter worked on this film.)
Courtesy of Sundance
As more people settle into their comfortable, HD-enabled living rooms, clicking on a panorama of streaming opportunities, what are the true theatrical possibilities for Sundance movies these days? Traditional distributors are all too aware of the high stakes; the reason Fox Searchlight shelled out $4 million for musical “STEP” is because the deal is about more than putting a documentary in theaters, with terms that include remake and theater rights. (Producer Scott Rudin is an old friend of director Amanda Lipitz, whose Broadway credits include producing the Tony Award-winning play “The Humans.”)
The streaming services’ hunger for “original content” and their very different economic models — subscription services, driving consumers to shop for goods — allow them to spend more than their competitors, driving up minimum guarantees for old-school theatrical distributors such as Fox Searchlight and Weinstein Co.
“It is becoming increasingly more difficult to understand how to measure success from an industry perspective,” said Noah Cowan, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society. “That being said, in this frisky environment independent cinema and especially documentaries are being handled with great care and impressive resources.”
Universal/Focus Features was in the bidding on “The Big Sick,” which helped to drive the price to $12.5 million, along with Sony/Columbia. Amazon Studios added $2 million to the $10 million price tag in order to close the deal and land the movie. They may have paid more than they had to for comedian Kumail Nanjianai’s true romance, but they got the movie.
Focus Features, under new chief Peter Kujawski (who bet on “Loving” and “Nocturnal Animals” for this year’s Oscar race and landed one nod for Best Actress contender Ruth Negga), wound up buying dark thriller “Thoroughbred” for a reported $5 million, the directing debut of playwright Cory Finley. It stars two Sundance breakouts, “The Witch” star Anya Taylot-Joy and “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” star Olivia Cooke, who wreak revenge on a wicked stepfather (Paul Sparks). (This was the second Sundance film to be dedicated to the late Anton Yelchin; the other was Drake Doremus’s “Newness.”) This could see some genre action much like last year’s Sundance smart horror hit, “The Witch.”
Fox Searchlight co-presidents Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula lost their bid against Amazon on “The Big Sick,” but they paid $9.5 million for rap crowdpleaser “Patti Cake$” with breakout star Danielle McDonald, and $4 million for music doc “STEP.” Having learned the doc ropes on “He Named Me Malala,” Searchlight is more confident that they have the right stuff to pull audiences, working closely with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Partners on grassroots outreach.
“We feel that the ‘STEP’ documentary will be relevant and entertaining to students, parents and educators as well anyone faced with obstacles to overcome,” said Utley and Gilula in an email. “We also feel it is highly adaptable to other media including narrative feature, television and stage to broaden the possible access to its inspiring message and characters.”
Sony Pictures Classics came into the festival with world rights to Luca Guadagnino’s elegiac Italian summer gay romance “Call Me By Your Name,” starring Armie Hammer, which landed rave reviews. Tightwads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard paid a premium of $6 million in order to avoid a costly bidding war. That sophisticated portrait of a love affair will be a soft lob to arthouse patrons.
But SPC may have been forced to overpay (a reported seven figure deal for worldwide rights) for one of two nun movies at the festival, Maggie Betts’ “Novitiate,” starring Margaret Qualley and Melissa Leo. The bidding on quirky comedy “Brigsby Bear” was among conventional distributors, according to seller UTA; SPE took the film for $5 million.
Amazon plunked down more than $6 million for Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour Grateful Dead documentary “Long Strange Trip” ahead of the festival, produced by Martin Scorsese. Amazon can leverage the best of all possible worlds with rigorous theatrical distribution as well as mighty marketing spends on such Oscar contenders as Sundance 2016 pickup “Manchester By the Sea,” the first digital company to land a Best Picture nod, and access to the Amazon home page and IMDb support.
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. But will Amazon Studios and its eventual partner distributor be able to pull it out? While they grabbed most world rights, this film is unlikely to have a much overseas appeal.
They also picked up “Landline,” Gillian Robespierre’s follow-up to “Obvious Child,” a more ambitious sprawling ensemble of tangled family relationships, again starring Jenny Slate as well as Jay Duplass, John Turturro, and Edie Falco.
Netflix, which loves to slap that red “Netflix Original” logo on their Sundance screenings, acquired three films before the festival: documentary “Chasing Jon Benet” and narratives “Fun Mom Dinner” and “Berlin Syndrome,” which will hit theaters first via Vertical Entertainment (“Under the Shadow”). And then they got busy.
So far, Netflix has bought four documentaries at the festival, including “Chasing Coral,” “NOBODY SPEAK: Trials of the Free Press,” and “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.” Netflix Content czar Ted Sarandos was in the Sundance negotiations for such high-priced buys as Bryan Fogel’s “Icarus” ($5 million), a hard-hitting expose of the Soviets’ doping program, financed by Impact Partners Netflix won the doc over competitors Amazon, Sony Pictures Classics, and Neon; the moviemakers, who were fine-tuning the movie within hours of its first showing, demanded a steep price for a film that will generate huge news coverage, and Netflix met it.
On the narrative side, but at the festival, Netflix paid $8 million for world rights to Marti Noxon’s “To the Bone,” starring Lily Collins as a 20-year-old anorexic seeking medical help from doctor Keanu Reeves. They also nabbed romantic comedy “The Incredible Jessica James” with Daily Show star Jessica Williams for $2.5 million, and comedy-thriller “I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore,” starring Melanie Lynskey as a disgruntled nurse’s aid, co-starring Elijah Wood.
UPDATE: And at festival’s end they plunked $12.5 million on Dee Rees’ southern drama of two families in conflict, “Mudbound,”
A24 snapped up, pre-festival, worldwide rights to David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” the “Pete’s Dragon” director’s self-financed high-concept tone poem starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, which should be a small-scale arthouse hit.
Neon, Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League and ex-RADiUS exec Tom Quinn’s disruptive new company, came to the festival with backers like SR Media and money to spend, even bidding $10.5 million on “Patti Cake$,” more than Lionsgate, Annapurna and Amazon, but lost to the more-established Fox Searchlight. However, they did land Matt Spicer’s sharp LA black comedy “Ingrid Goes West,” starring Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen and O’Shea Jackson. “It’s ‘Spring Breakers’ meets ‘King of Comedy,'” said one festival player.
Weinstein Co. went into the festival having finally closed the $3.1 million deal on writer-turned-director Taylor Sheridan’s murder mystery at a remote Indian reservation, “Wind River,” starring Jeremy Renner as a grieving predator hunter and Elizabeth Olsen as yet another clueless FBI agent (he wrote”Sicario”). They also debuted the first two parts of Jay-Z’s new documentary Spike series “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story.”
The Orchard acquired two top-dollar films: they partnered with CNN Films on a $2 million deal for hunting documentary ‘Trophy” and bet $3 million for North American rights to “The Hero,” Brett Haley’s follow-up to Sundance $7 million hit “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” also starring Sam Elliott.
Annapurna distribution executives Marc Weinstock and Erik Lomis were bidding on “Patti Cake$ and other films on the Sundance scene, but by press time had not made any buys.
Still looking for a home: Period drama “Mudbound,” Dee Rees’s stunning post-World War II tale of two southern families, which needs strong support to reach audiences, even with a cast led by Cary Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige and Jason Clarke; interested buyers are proceeding with caution.