Sundance 2019 brings tempered expectations after a quiet 2018 market, when big-spenders Netflix and Amazon withdrew from the fray. As distributors can no longer rely on output deals with Netflix, they are looking to Starz and Hulu to make up the shortfall. And with Amazon Video Direct’s Film Festival Stars program gone, there’s no artificial bottom to the market, which gives everyone more room to maneuver, but also risks leaving the least commercial indies with no distribution at all. And some companies are changing their deals so that theatrical distribution is no longer guaranteed.
The festival always programs a strong selection of potential documentary Oscar contenders, but while prices are bound to be more exuberant following last year’s tsunami of box office hits led by Oscar contender “RBG” and Morgan Neville tearjerker “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” this year’s selection may not be as commercially robust.
Among the usual theatrical suspects, Fox Searchlight is unlikely to take any big swings heading into its merger with Disney; and Lionsgate, Focus Features, Roadside Attractions, Neon and Magnolia will be looking for a mix of features and documentaries. IFC may have lost its revered co-president Jonathan Sehring, but will continue with the veteran team of long-term co-president Lisa Schwartz and acquisitions honcho Arianna Bocco.
“There will be one or two big movies everyone’s into like ‘The Big Sick,'” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, referencing the big Amazon sale from two years ago. SPC is launching two 2019 documentaries at the festival, sailing saga “Maiden” and dramatic frozen water-experience “Aquarela.” “And then a lot of films that are surprises, because it’s not clear what they are beforehand.”
This year’s new Sundance player is Apple, which has already aggressively entered the video entertainment space, but may follow up the TIFF buy “The Elephant Queen” (showing at Sundance) with more acquisitions. But indie veteran Matt Dentler (SXSW, Cinetic Media) and his acquisition team are unlikely to jump into overpaying for titles, even if they can afford it. They may partner with A24, which has already pacted to deliver them some projects, but the question of how the films will be released will be determined on a case by case basis.
Silicon Valley disruptors Amazon and Netflix also have deep pockets, but stayed out of the buying fray last year. Both will bring their full teams led by, respectively, Amazon’s new chief Jennifer Salke, Ted Hope and Julie Rappaport, and Ted Sarandos and Scott Stuber for Netflix, who have been producing so much content they may not need to buy anything; they won’t buy a movie that they don’t think will lure clicks. “If something pops and makes a statement, they’ll pay a premium to get ahead of the others,” said UTA’s Rena Ronson.
While the changing landscape comes with uncertainty, many in the industry are optimistic about this year’s prospects. “There’s no better place than Sundance to premiere an American independent film,” said Big Beach producer Peter Saraf, who is selling Awkwafina vehicle “The Farewell.” “There are a lot of options, more than ever, more buyers and more people who need stories. Everyone is serving audiences in different ways.”
The big question is where tiny films with no elements will go. “My hope is that with all of the new streaming platforms emerging,” said ICM Partners’ Jessica Lacy, partner and head, international and independent film, “they’ll need compelling content, from Disney and HBO to Apple and Amazon.”
While some movies screened ahead of the festival — A24 snapped up Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” starring Tilda Swinton, while Bleecker grabbed “The Tomorrow Man,” starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner — the first four days are a frenzy of high-profile screenings followed by huddles of acquisitions teams conferring on the market value of what they just saw. Many of them will wind up Monday night at Cinetic Media’s packed post-weekend party at The High-West Distillery, where auction losers lick their wounds — and hope their rivals overpaid.
Head to the next page for a breakdown of the potential big sales this year.