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10 Huge Sundance Film Festival Deals (and How They Paid Off)

As the 2017 Sundance Film Festival begins, we look back at the deals that broke records in Park City (updated January 18, 2017).

“The Birth of a Nation” (2016)

The Big Deal: $17.5 million from Fox Searchlight
Domestic Box Office: $15.9 Million
What’s the Big Deal? Fox Searchlight made history at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by picking up Nate Parker’s acclaimed slave revolt drama for an earth-shattering $17.5 million, the biggest deal in Sundance history. The distributor is notorious for throwing down big money for the buzziest Sundance titles (see “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Way, Way Back” below), but this gargantuan deal is the most they’ve ever paid at the festival. It’s a deal that rivaled the highest international festival purchases of all time ($20 million for Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” at Cannes in 2015 and 2014, respectively). Searchlight was surely hoping “Nation” would follow in the footsteps of their other successful slave drama “12 Years a Slave,” which rode acclaim and Oscar wins to the tune of $188 million globally. Parker’s resurfaced rape allegations at the end of summer 2016 completely derailed the picture before its October release. The film became a stopping ground for think pieces and an afterthought at both the box office and the Oscar race.

“Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)

The Big Deal:
$10.5 million from Fox Searchlight
Domestic Box Office: $59.9 million
What’s the Big Deal? Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Little Miss Sunshine” is perhaps the biggest Sundance breakthrough of all time. Fox Searchlight put a record-breaking amount of money on the line in this double-digit deal, and it all paid off in spades as “Sunshine” evolved at the box office from a little-engine-that-could to a bonafide indie blockbuster. Word of mouth kept it alive in theaters for over five months, and for 10 weeks straight it was earning more than $1 million in theaters. (It peaked at #3 on Labor Day weekend with $9.6 million). You couldn’t meet a single moviegoer that year who hadn’t fallen head over heels in love with the spunky Olive, her dysfunctional family, her yellow Volkswagen T2 Microbus and her killer dance moves. Earning almost $60 million domestically and $100.5 million worldwide, “Sunshine” is a success story Sundance rarely sees.

Manchester by the Sea” (2016)

The Big Deal: $10 million from Amazon Studios
Domestic Box Office: $37.2 million (as of 1/16/17)
What’s the Big Deal? Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature made a splash over the first weekend of last year’s festival, earning some major premature Oscar buzz and near-unanimous critical praise. In what has become an increasingly common trend, Amazon Studios stepped in to acquire worldwide streaming rights to the film for a lofty $10 million, making it one of the top Sundance purchases of all time. Roadside Attractions stepped in shortly after to partner with Amazon on theatrical rights. The high priced deal was risky given how “Manchester” boasts slow-burn drama and weighty themes that are a tough mainstream sell, but Amazon wisely played the fall festival circuit, building word of mouth and shaping the film into a must-see awards tittle. Now “Manchester” is box office hit and an awards darling, with Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor and more certainly in its future.

“Hamlet 2” (2008)

The Big Deal: $10 million from Focus Features
Domestic Box Office: $4.9 million
What’s the Big Deal? Andrew Fleming’s “Hamlet 2” made waves at Sundance back in 2008 thanks to its ridiculous concept — a recovering alcoholic and failed actor teaches high school theater, where he attempts to mount a musical sequel to “Hamlet” — and even more ridiculous lead performance by Steve Coogan. Focus Features laughed hard enough to throw down $10 million, making it one of the top Sundance deals ever. Unfortunately, what the distributor saw as a slam dunk ended up striking out miserably at the box office. While critical support was semi-favorable, Focus oddly waited until late August to release the picture, making what could’ve been an early summer success story nothing but a typical late summer dud. “Hamlet 2” grossed a paltry $4.9 million, making it a Sundance success-story-turned-horror-show.

“The Way, Way Back” (2013)

The Big Deal: $9.75 million from Fox Searchlight
Domestic Box Office: $21.5 million
What’s the Big Deal? Nat Faxon and Jim Rash spun Oscar gold (they won Best Adapted Screenplay alongside Alexander Payne for “The Descendants”) into their own directorial debut, crafting a sweet-natured and occasionally very funny coming-of-age story. Fox Searchlight made a monster $9.75 million deal for the movie. “The Way, Way Back” is more or less a stand-in for the prototype Sundance film thanks to its warm and accessible blend of drama and comedy and its well-rounded, recognizable ensemble (Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, etc.). Fox Searchlight clearly saw another “Little Miss Sunshine”-sized hit on their hands here — and they even gave it a similar July release — though the box office returns didn’t quite follow suit. The movie certainly turned a profit with its $21.5 million gross, but “The Way, Way Back” was definitely not the blockbuster indie Fox Searchlight was envisioning.

Brooklyn” (2015)

The Big Deal:
$9 million from Fox Searchlight
Domestic Box Office: $27.6 million (and counting)
What’s the Big Deal? Fox Searchlight paid big for John Crowley’s lovely romance, which earned positive reviews at its Sundance premiere but truly exploded into a full-blown Oscar player on the fall festival circuit. With the “Brooklyn” deal, the distributor proved it was one of the smartest festival buyers in the business. Picking up a romance film for this much money was somewhat of a risk, but through great reviews and even greater word of mouth, Searchlight spun the movie into an Oscar darling that should end up with a gross upwards of $30 million domestically. Considering they paid more and earned less for what should’ve been a bonafide crowdpleaser in “The Way, Way Back,” “Brooklyn” is a reminder that some of the smartest deals come with patience to strike at the right time and commitment to turn a true gem into an Oscar-nominated drama.

“Son of Rambow” (2008)

The Big Deal:
$7 million from Paramount Vintage
Domestic Box Office: $1.8 million
What’s the Big Deal? Garth Jennings’ wonderful “Son of Ranbow” combines an emotionally winning coming-of-age story with an irresistible love letter to action cinema. It may be heavily British, but its themes and concept would seem on paper to be everything Americans love about movies involving young children, so it’s really no wonder Paramount Vantage paid $7 million for the title. Surely they were hoping the film would win over domestic audiences as passionately as it did the Sundance crowd, but its summertime release ended up backfiring. Despite positive critical notices, “Son of Rambow” got caught in the May crossfires of competition with “Iron Man,” which attracted the male demographic “Rambow” was certainly trying to win over. The end result — just $1.8 million — is one of Sundance’s biggest bombs to date.

Dope” (2015)

The Big Deal:
$7 million from Open Road
Domestic Box Office: $17.5 million
What’s the Big Deal? Rick Famuyiwa’s vibrant coming-of-age story was one of the Sundance sensations of 2015. Numerous pundits peg its $7 million deal as one of the biggest purchases last year, even higher than the unspecified amount spent in the purchase of Grand Jury winner “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (early reports of that film’s $12 million Fox Searchlight deal were proven false). Open Road paid big for “Dope,” and the movie’s energetic style and excellent reviews suggested they would more than reap the benefits of their purchase. Tragically, that wasn’t the case. “Dope” made more money than most Sundance entries from last year, but its $17.5 million gross was largely seen as a disappointment given all of the hype surrounding the title during Sundance. In an ambitious move, Open Road decided to eschew the traditional limited release strategy for the indie and opted instead to open the film nationwide on its first weekend. That was not smart, as the mainstream summer market belongs to blockbusters. Looks like they ended up learning that the hard way.

Our Idiot Brother” (2011)

The Big Deal: $6 million from The Weinstein Company
Domestic Box Office: $24.8 million
What’s the Big Deal? With a cast of Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer, Jesse Peretz’ “Our Idiot Brother” was one of those star-studded ensemble comedy-dramas that Sundance is known for, which made it an unusual fit for the awards-obsessed Weinstein Company. While the Weinsteins are known for bringing out the checkbook for prestige dramas, “Our Idiot Brother” was a rare exception, seeing the company spend $6 million for distribution rights. In a move similar to that of “Hamlet 2,” Weinstein made the risky to decision to release the film in late August— a notorious time for studios to dump their worst projects — though they found moderate returns with over $20 million in sales. Consider this one a modest success, though probably not the breakout hit TWC was expecting.

The Kids Are All Right” (2010)

The Big Deal:
 $4.8 million from Focus Features
Domestic Box Office: $20.8 million
What’s the Big Deal? Focus Features hardly spent a fortune to acquire Lisa Cholodenko’s acclaimed family drama, but they certainly paid above the Sundance average, something that’s all the more impressive when you consider just how uncertain an R-rated comedy-drama involving the tribulations of a married lesbian couple would play at the box office. Focus had faith, however, that audiences would connect with the film’s universal themes and with Cholodenko’s complex and messy characters, rendered in top-notch performances by Annette Benning, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. Opening over the summer of 2008 to the lovely tune of $20 million, “The Kids Are All Right” rode its critical acclaim all the way to the Oscars stage in February of the next year, earning four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture.

READ MORE: Is Piracy Hurting Sundance Filmmakers?

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