In the month leading up to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix and Amazon were on fire. Both streaming services won big at the Golden Globes. Netflix’s original documentary Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” premiered in the opening night slot at Sundance. And right before the festival began, news broke that Amazon had signed veteran producer Ted Hope to lead its Amazon Original Movies division.
However, neither company managed to edge out established independent distributors such as Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight — or even newcomers such as The Orchard and Broad Green Pictures.
As Mashable reports, Netflix and Amazon both came to Sundance ready to buy — but are leaving with something like egg on their faces. Netflix bid $5 million for “The Bronze,” but lost to Relativity Media, even though they offered more money for the comedy. Though Netflix signed Mark and Jay Duplass, the prolific filmmaking brothers who dominated Sundance, to a four-picture deal, they didn’t walk away from Park City with any completed projects.
Similarly, Amazon recently announced plans to produce an original television series written and produced by Woody Allen, but when it comes to Allen’s latest film project, of course, it went straight to his usual home: Sony Pictures Classics.
Though filmmakers are increasingly open to day-and-date releases, the idea of forgoing theatrical entirely — or dramatically shortening the theatrical window — hasn’t yet caught on (at least not for hot Sundance titles). Both Amazon and Netflix are developing theatrical partnerships, and Netflix has already announced plans to release the sequel of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” on IMAX screens. But neither company can promise filmmakers a wide release.
With Hope’s hire, Amazon Studios announced ambitious plans to produce original films which will screen in theaters, followed by a launch on Prime Instant Video 30-60 days later. But mainstream exhibition partners are unlikely to jump at the shortened theatrical windows. Until the details of their theatrical plans are hammered out, they are at a clear disadvantage with filmmakers.
In order to increase its odds of nabbing a hot title, Amazon partnered with newcomer Bleecker Street films to make a “mid-seven figure” bid for John Crawley’s “Brooklyn,” which would include a traditional theatrical release before streaming online, according to the Wall Street Journal. Fox Searchlight ultimately shelled out $9 million, winning the bidding war for the film, which stars Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, and Jim Broadbent, according to The Wrap.
Though it’s likely that more people (especially younger audiences) will see a film on Netflix than at their local theater, until there’s full transparency — meaning how much money the film’s stakeholders stand to make, with numbers available to the public — it’s difficult to impress that fact on many filmmakers. And, as Mashable points out, producers are still much more comfortable with brand-name distributors where they have long-term relationships.
But with an increased push towards transparency, it’s possible the situation could change for the streaming newcomers as soon as next Sundance.
READ MORE: Sundance Institute and Cinereach Unveil Transparency Project
The Transparency Project, the new initiative from The Sundance Institute and Cinereach, aims to collect and share current data on both revenue and expenses from independent film distribution so that filmmakers can make smart choices when it comes to funding, marketing and releasing their work. As it stands now, the only time distributors seem to release VOD numbers is when they are touting a success (as with “Snowpiercer,” for instance). But until those numbers are as standardized and widely distributed as theatrical box office, filmmakers will operate in ignorance — and will naturally opt for the established theatrical model.
That said, last year at this time, nobody could have imagined that Amazon would become a major player in the television industry. Maybe they’ll have better luck at next year’s festival.