“That’s a great Netflix movie,” said one premium cable executive of “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a scruffy New York comedy based on rookie writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s best friend, an overweight 30ish party girl (TV star Jillian Bell), who changes her life by committing to run the New York Marathon. After the world premiere at the Eccles, the executive was wiping her eyes as a heated Sundance bidding war was already under way. However, the buyer wasn’t Netflix; it was Amazon Studios. It wasn’t chasing the big numbers at first, but as soon as new chief Jennifer Salke saw it, she rushed back into the fray to nail down the movie for $14 million worldwide. It was their third big buy of the festival.
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The shift in the market for Sundance titles is dramatic, as the buyers with the most to spend and the most need for ample content — Apple, Amazon, HBO, Hulu, and Netflix — competed for the most commercial titles with global appeal.
Under the direction of artistic director John Cooper and chief programmer Kim Yutani, many films at the most diverse festival ever told stories of people trying to manage shifting and clashing cultures. These ranged from Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary “American Factory,” to Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light,” Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Minhal Baig’s “Hala,” and Julius Onah’s “Luce.”
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Traditional specialty brick-and-mortar distributors played at a more affordable level. Bleecker scooped up senior romance “The Tomorrow Man” while Kino Lorber bought Venice Film Festival premiere “The Mountain.” Others are producing and pre-buying, in order not to overspend as Neon did last year on the $10 million Sundance flop “Assassination Nation.” Among these was Neon itself, which arrived in Park City with stunning CNN documentary “Apollo 11,” and Magnolia Pictures, which quietly financed two Sundance documentaries, Penny Lane’s “Hail Satan?” and Alison Klayman’s Steve Bannon study, “The Brink.”
All that demand made for a robust market. “Sundance was more healthy than last year,” said distributor Paul Davidson, who bought documentary “Halston” and Olivia Colman Appalachian thriller “Them That Follow” for a company formerly known as The Orchard. “It’s always good to see big dollars being paid. It’s a shot in the arm to encourage people to spend more at larger levels. There’s a range of solid films not in the $7 million-$15 million range with good casts, and great documentaries.”
What happened to Amazon Studios between 2018, when nothing seemed to fit its finicky commercial parameters, and 2019, when it became the festival’s most aggressive buyer? After a management shakeup that threw many projects into turnaround, former network executive Salke came in with an appetite and deep pockets to buy pictures to fill her slate. (Amazon had already booked Ritesh Batra’s “Photograph” and Bert & Bertie’s “Troop Zero” into the festival line-up.) She was also eager to find movies with appeal to women.
Going into the festival, writer-star Mindy Kaling’s New York comedy “Late Night” was already being compared to Amazon’s $12 million 2017 buy “The Big Sick,” which went on to earn a writing Oscar nomination and grossed $54 million worldwide. “Late Night,” which was developed at Fox 2000, is an entertaining culture-clash story about a canny diversity hire (Kaling) on an all-male writing team for an acerbic talk show host (Emma Thompson).
Co-financiers 30West and international sales/production company FilmNation sold “Late Night” (for the U.S. only) in the festival’s first bidding war: Amazon picked it up for $13 million. Even with great reviews (current Tomatometer is 87 percent), by conservative estimates “Late Night” would need to make some $60 million in order to recoup after marketing costs. But online shopping site Amazon operates by different metrics than other theatrical distributors. Both films should open this summer.
Salke also paid $14 million for writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ post-9/11 CIA thriller “The Report,” which is a feat of dramatic writing for smart audiences that imparts reams of info about CIA interrogation techniques and makes heroes out of investigator Dan Jones (Adam Driver) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening). Steven Soderbergh collaborator Burns (“Contagion”), making his directing debut, emerges as not only an ace screenwriter but a filmmaker. This well-reviewed movie (Tomatometer: 95 percent) will hold for rebranding in the fall as an Oscar contender.
“It’s a mixture of new and established talent we hope to build a future with,” stated Salke, “and continue to produce content for audiences around the world on Amazon Prime Video.”
Also having a strong festival was A24, which backed three of the best-reviewed movies in the U.S. dramatic competition with homegrown productions “Share” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” and pre-buy “Native Son.” However, rather than take the financially risky theatrical route, A24 sold to frequent television partner HBO Films both first-time filmmaker Pippa Bianco’s low-budget high school thriller “Share,” and visual artist Rashid Johnson and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ stylish adaptation of the Richard Wright Chicago classic “Native Son,” starring Barry Jenkins discoveries Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) and Kiki Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”).
“That’s what artists do, we fuck shit up,” Johnson told the Eccles opening night audience of the hard-hitting movie update, which HBO bought for a reported eight figures.
HBO also screened the most talked-about film at the festival, four-hour Michael Jackson serial pedophile expose “Leaving Neverland,” which will permanently alter perceptions of one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
At Sundance, A24 acquired Competition breakout “The Farewell,” Lulu Wang’s poignant true-story family comedy, shot in English and Mandarin and showcasing “Crazy Rich Asian” star Awkwafina, for $6 million for the world outside China. (That threw new Sundance buyer Apple out of the bidding, as it sought worldwide rights only.)
Like studio specialty distributors Focus Features and Fox Searchlight, A24 is producing and pre-buying more. But the opportunistic company is also offloading risk with other companies — not only to HBO, but Apple. These partners are looking to A24 to help them brand and build buzz for their titles.
Also world premiering at Sundance were two other A24 pre-buys, British filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s moody romantic drama “The Souvenir,” starring Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, and her debuting daughter Honor Swinton-Byrne, and Irish rookie Lee Cronin’s horror thriller “Hole in the Ground,” which will be released in partnership with DIRECTV.
Warner Bros. label New Line Cinema made the biggest buy, paying $15 million for worldwide rights to exuberant crowdpleaser “Blinded by the Light,” about a Pakistani teenager (Viveik Kalra) who comes into his own via the music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. Audiences are cheered and delighted by this upbeat movie.
New buyer Apple, with an acquisitions team led by SXSW and Cinetic Media veteran Matt Dentler, showed TIFF pickup “Elephant Queen,” an eight-year odyssey for wildlife documentary-makers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone, who said they loved collaborating with Apple on a wide-ranging marketing strategy for the world. And Dentler bought “Hala,” a coming-of-age drama shot in English and Urdu from producer Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment. Expanded from her short by “Bojack Horseman” story editor and music-video director Minhal Baig, the movie stars Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers”) in the title role as a Muslim teenager dealing with her dysfunctional family. At IndieWire’s dinner for first-time filmmakers, Baig said she was impressed with Dentler’s cinephile bonafides. Clearly, while Apple is not revealing its releasing strategy, there is going to be a theatrical component.
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Never one to overpay is Sony Pictures Classics, which has pivoted into buying more documentaries. Michael Barker and Tom Bernard came into Sundance with TIFF women sailor documentary “Maiden” and dramatic water experience “Aquarela.” They also acquired Cameron Crowe and A.J. Eaton’s music biodoc “David Crosby: Remember My Name” and Matthew Tyrnauer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” a searing portrait of the New York powerbroker described by many as evil incarnate. They are also expected to pick up — after backing her Oscar-winning “Alice” — Julianne Moore vehicle “After the Wedding,” adapted by her husband Bart Freundlich and co-starring Michelle Williams, a gender-flip update of Susanne Bier’s Oscar-nominated original, which should play well for the mainstream older specialty crowd.
Streamer Hulu followed up last year’s strong Sundance buys (“Crime + Punishment” and Oscar nominee “Minding the Gap”) by acquiring for $2 million TV director Ben Berman’s popular “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” about a magician.
Before the festival, Neon and Hulu partnered on U.S. rights to the zombie midnight title “Little Monsters,” starring Lupita Nyong’o, for mere six figures. And at Sundance Neon scooped up three of the five movies it tried to buy. This time Neon CEO Tom Quinn stopped short of the top bidding on “The Farewell” and “Late Night,” but landed genre title “The Lodge” as well as Julius Onah’s coming-of-age thriller “Luce.”
Based on J.C. Lee’s play, the film is a provocative (and often disturbing) dissection of a well-intentioned suburban couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) whose adopted African-born overachieving teenage son (breakout Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) runs into conflicts with his teacher (Octavia Spencer) that spiral out of control. Neon also acquired one of the filmmaker discoveries of the festival, Colombian hostage thriller “Monos,” directed by Alejandro Landes and starring Julianne Nicholson.
Sitting out the festival so far are the once-primary buyers Focus Features and Fox Searchlight. And what of Netflix? The antipathy toward the mighty streaming behemoth was palpable, but this year Netflix used Sundance as a launchpad for its own movies: art-world satire “Velvet Buzzsaw” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and actor-turned-director Chiwetel Ejiofor’s “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”
Late Wednesday, Netflix announced the acquisition of Rachel Lears’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez documentary, “Knock Down the House,” and bought the seven part Indian series “Delhi Crime,” but has otherwise remained on the sidelines. On a plane home, one buyer texted an apt explanation: “Netflix finally met their match in Amazon, Hulu, and Apple. They were definitely ‘buying/making offers,’ but apparently didn’t drink enough coffee.” (Last year, Netflix picked up several movies without theatrical futures post-Sundance for a song.)
On the other hand, if you’re spending $15 billion a year on original content, who needs Sundance anyway?