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Sundance at the Box Office: Here’s Why ‘Birth of A Nation’ Isn’t Enough To Scare Buyers In 2017

Last year's Cinderella story turned into a pumpkin, but the Sundance Film Festival provided other box office winners.

“The Birth of a Nation”

Sundance 2016 will always be remembered for the record-breaking $17.5 million sale of Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” to Fox Searchlight, on the heels of the #oscarsowhite backlash — and for the massive marketing fallout that followed in light of Parker’s rape-trial acquittal. With a domestic gross under $16 million, it led to one of the bigger failures among Sundance sales relative to expense.

Netflix outbid Searchlight for “The Birth of a Nation,” but the producers favored the theatrical route (including that company’s proven awards expertise and commercial success) and accepted less money. One wonders if it had been a high-profile Netflix film if the post-Sundance controversy about Nate Parker’s college days would have had the same impact or effect. It will be curious to see if any producer this year is as quick to turn down a high offer from Netflix or similar non-theatrical buyer.

Those memories could temper bidding wars, but other box-office results from last year’s Sundance films suggest risk can pay off. Here are some of the winners from last year:

Casey Affleck, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, MIchelle Williams, Matt Damon and Kenneth Lonergan.

Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Amazon Studios


The merchandising and media giant partnered in six films that played last year, four of which grossed more than $10 million. “Manchester By the Sea,” the second biggest deal  of 2016 at $10 million for North American rights, became the year’s breakout success. Strategically positioned for a prime release date to capitalize on awards hopes, the anticipated boost from nominations could lead to a domestic total of more than $50 million. It’s also elevated Amazon as a credible buyer committed to maximizing its films.

“Love and Friendship,” Whit Stillman’s film, a spring opener, hit $14 million, which placed it among the top grossers among the year’s specialized releases. Other films fared less well, but “Gleason” is still in the running for an Oscar Documentary nomination. Also rans include Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary “Author: The JT Leroy Story,” Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog,” and Joshua Marston’s “Complete Unknown.”

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in "Southside With You"

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in “Southside With You”

Matt Dinerstein, Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions

Roadside Attractions

Amazon works with partners to distribute their films and the most successful has been Roadside Attractions, which also has a partnership with Lionsgate. Roadside handled “Manchester By the Sea,” which represents the most successful title in its history. “Love and Friendship” was another solid success.

Separate from their Amazon connection, Roadside also picked up the Barack and Michelle Obama first-date story “Southside With You” to $6.3 million, with a wider initial release that fell short of hopes. Still, it added to their position as the leading distributor of Sundance 2016 debuts. They also released another Sundance title, James Schamus’ “Indignation,” to $3.4 million.

Captain Fantastic by Daniel Bergeron

The Orchard and Bleecker Street

Both “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (The Orchard) and “Captain Fantastic” (Bleecker Street) screened in the premiere section; both featured wilderness settings, with a mentoring father or father figure. Later, they films had overlapping summer releases. “Fantastic” was a mid-level success (and an awards player) for Bleecker Street, grossing just under $6 million. The New Zealand-produced “Hunt” grossed a little less at $5.2 million, but that was a breakout for The Orchard. That single film represents nearly half of what the company’s 22 other films have totaled. (Showing the vagaries of the market, their releases of “Christine” and “Life, Animated” out of the competitive sections have only about a tenth as much, combined).

Alma Dalaykan, Nurgaiv Rys, Aisholpan Nurgaiv and director Otto Bell

Alma Dalaykan, Nurgaiv Rys, Aisholpan Nurgaiv and director Otto Bell

Daniel Bergeron

The Documentaries

Seven of the 15 films on the Oscar Documentary shortlist premiered at Sundance 2016, including “O.J. Simpson: Made in America” and top grossers “The Eagle Huntress” and “Weiner.” Though made for ESPN, the Sundance premiere of “O.J. Simpson” helped make it a more legitimate feature despite its nearly eight-hour length. “Eagle” stands out as Sony Pictures Classics’ biggest grossing documentary (and their second biggest release from 2016) since their Oscar-winning “Searching for Sugar Man” in 2012. “Weiner” had an impressive $1.7 million total that stood out even more given its concurrent showing on VOD, likely adding considerably to its revenues.

VOD Is A Legit Early Option

Here’s an eye-popper: Of the 14 US Dramatic Competition features that opened last year, seven also initially had VOD options including cable, iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix. (These all came with largely token theatrical showings.) Most streaming releases came within a few months of the festival. These are not yet the festival’s most-acclaimed titles, but this section is a centerpiece of America’s most prestigious film festival. (Documentaries, with their major support from HBO, Showtime, PBS, and Netflix, are already established as an initial home viewing alternative). That’s a sea change for visibility.

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