There’s an energy in the sold out theater before a big premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, as the packed audience of industry leaders and indie film fanatics anticipate the unveiling of what could be the next “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “Reservoir Dogs.” If the film delivers on only a fraction of the lofty expectations, the excited crowd can help a film soar in ways it wouldn’t if potential buyers were watching it in a quiet screening room.
It’s in this hyped environment that distributors must make acquisition decisions at lightning speed. Often in matter of hours, distributors need to determine a film’s box office potential, put a price tag on that potential, and present a strategy – one that could include promises of publicity and advertising spending, number of theaters, or even an awards campaign – to the filmmakers and their investors in an effort to acquire the film.
There are many who believe the bidding wars that happen in this environment lead to overspending – with $9.5 million (“Patti Cake$”) to $12.5 million (“The Big Sick”) being too big of a gamble in the current theatrical market.
Not that long ago, Hollywood studios put a great deal of their resources toward development by optioning hundreds of original scripts, which they would shepherd through rewrites, attach cast and talent, and – once deciding to green light a project – oversee the production that they were funding themselves. Now that the studios’ output has narrowed significantly to focus on a small number of big-budget tentpoles built around established properties, even a film like “Baby Driver” – an medium-budgeted popcorn film based on an original script – is a studio anomaly.
As the studios have bolstered their focus on tentpole projects, more original projects are falling to SVOD platforms and finding support from deep-pocketed film financiers. Low-budget indies by first and second-time filmmakers have become the equivalent of discovering a lanky 16 year-old pitcher with a 92 mile-per-hour fastball — pure potential that could have a variety of outcomes, from bust to All-Star.
In retrospect, “The Big Sick” – having already pulled in $38 million domestically and becoming the rare comedy in awards contention – seems like a can’t-miss prospect. The based-on-real-life relationship of screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani is a captivating story, but the path from idea to a sold-out Eccles premiere is covered with potential pitfalls.
Could Gordon and Nanjiani adapt their story into a compelling, well-structured narrative that’s both funny and dramatic? Could director Michael Showalter find the tonal balance between raunchy humor, cultural insights and a heartfelt moments set in a hospital? Could stand-up comedian and “Silicon Valley”-straight man Nanjiani carry a romantic comedy and recreate chemistry with an actress playing his wife (Zoe Kazan)? With a comedy, all the ingredients can be there, but subtleties of pacing and timing can destroy a good idea. And as “Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski has highlighted, even the strongest vision can crumble under the pressure cooker of limited time and limited resources.
The path for “Patti Cake$” to a reported $9.5 million winning bid from Fox Searchlight was even more precarious than “The Big Sick.” Of course the idea of an underdog battling small-mindedness with her dreams of rap stardom is a winning formula. While many loved the spirit of writer-director Geremy Jasper’s story world, it was a gamble to assume a first-time feature filmmaker could navigate a film that tonally shifts between fantasy, an all-too-realistic portrayal of misogyny and the banding together of a lovable Wes Anderson-like crew of outsiders, all of which would need to be pulled together and driven by original hip-hop tracks to be performed by a 23 year-old Australian lead actress (Danielle Macdonald) who had never rapped before in her life.
These questions were answered when distributors saw the final films. Not only did the filmmaking teams deliver the best possible version of the project’s potential, distributors had the advantage of witnessing a clear-eyed view of how each film fit today’s market. Hollywood studios could spend money developing 15 comedies and would likely fall short of the quality and timeliness on display with these new films and the way they were instantly tested in front of big crowds.
Every year, tens of thousands of indies get made that have potential, but studios let festivals find the most promising ones and then they get to cherry-pick from the best. The only unknown left after the premiere is if the distributor themselves can deliver by finding an audience for a crowd-pleasing film.
Hollywood has all but abdicated its role in developing young and emerging talent in a way that sets it apart from other industries. It’s hard to find another major American business like studio filmmaking that doesn’t invest or offer entry level positions to train the next generation who will be called upon to make their biggest products.
Judd Apatow, who produced “The Big Sick,” has single-handedly developed more cinematic comedic creators in the last 10 years – Seth Rogen, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Jason Segel, Kristen Wiig, Steve Carrell being only the biggest examples – than any big studio. Apatow recognized something honest and funny in Gordon and Nanjiani, who he guided through three years of intense rewrites and then helped build the team around them to help them succeed.
Meanwhile, it’s unlikely “Patti Cake$” even finds its way to the Sundance Film Festival without the Sundance Institute. In an interview with IndieWire, Jasper talked about how he brought a half-formed script to the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and in next two years the Michelle Satter-led team at Sundance labs helped him turn it into a proper script, brought his cast and him back to Park City to develop the project, while he received additional financial support from other non-profits like the San Francisco Film Festival.
That kind of script-to-screen support has been the wind behind filmmakers dating back to Paul Thomas Anderson and up through a new generation of directors like Ryan Coogler, Marielle Heller, The Daniels, Cary Fukunaga, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
In other words, the filmmakers who Hollywood is now relying on to carry all kinds of big-budget properties. An entire non-profit infrastructure has emerged to fill the void left by a film industry that has never in its hundred-plus year history been less responsible for the health of American movie making. They just get to swoop in and round out their roster with the fruits of other’s labor. If they have to pay an extra million or two, they are still getting away dirt cheap.
© 2016 Sundance Institute | Photo by Ali Barr
Baseball teams have learned that, in the era of data-driven analysis, even for the big market teams with deep pockets – like Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles – it’s best to invest in developing emerging talent than relying on two or three high-priced stars to carry the team. It’s along these lines that we are starting to see smart, new distributors like Amazon Studios and Annapurna scooping up production deals with the most exciting producers and directors, while respected specialty distributors like Fox Searchlight and A24 are shifting toward development and away from pure acquisitions.