As Hulu nears a reported $8 million deal to acquire worldwide rights for Justin Simien’s “Bad Hair,” it will be the latest Sundance Film Festival premiere headed for streaming. The film has plenty of salable elements: The sophomore feature from the creator of “Dear White People” is a horror-satire built around a fictional universe where Kelly Rowland and Usher sing original songs and star in campy music videos. It’s also got depth, with a social message that shows just how painful weaves can be, and an exciting cast almost entirely comprised of black women. The film drew a huge crowd before its premiere, many of whom were disappointed when they were turned away as the theater quickly reached capacity.
However, even with such buzz and creativity, sales prospects are defined by the market. And, like “Boys State” (Apple and A24) and “Palm Springs” (Hulu and Neon), the hottest Sundance titles have been acquired in theatrical-streaming partnerships rather than traditional theatrical releases that treat streaming as part of a presumed afterlife.
Given the current state of the specialized theatrical market, that alignment is essential. Data from the California Film Commission shows the budget of “Bad Hair” was at least $8.89 million (with a $2.2 million state tax credit). Once marketing costs were included, it would need to see domestic box office of nearly $30 million to clear a profit. Based on the box-office performances of 2019, that target represents a long shot.
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Festival acquisitions are increasingly valued based on their streaming — rather than theatrical — potential. While Sundance deals used to be about crunching numbers and taking a leap of faith to see if audiences would be willing to drive to a theater and buy a ticket to see a film, it’s now more about whether a given title can be an alluring addition to digital shelves to keep subscribers happy. Theatrical is still alive — all the major Sundance deals have a theatrical component — but now the question is if those releases are treated as commitments, trial balloons, or loss leaders.
All of the major theatrical distributors were in the room for “Bad Hair” on Sundance opening night: A24, whose strong brand rests in part on its impeccable taste in “elevated horror” movies like “Hereditary;” Magnolia, which recently released the weirdo comedy “Mister America;” IFC, which has a whole label devoted to midnight movies; Bleecker Street, which had embraced offbeat dark comedies; and Neon, which has built a name for itself with unexpected hits like “Parasite.”
Even the Disney-owned Searchlight was there scouting out the movie’s commercial potential post-“Jojo Rabbit,” the Oscar-nominated Nazi satire that brought in $44.4 million globally — a scenario that further illustrates the tough theatrical prospects “Bad Hair” could face.
Netflix, which turned Simien’s Sundance hit “Dear White People” into a successful series, had buyers at Thursday’s screening. So did Apple, and Amazon, which favored more mainstream, crowd-pleasing hits like “Late Night” in its Sundance buying spree last year. That underperformed in theaters, but Amazon maintains its focus is on releasing movies that add value to its Prime subscriptions.
Distributors acknowledge that some theatrical releases have begun to take on new connotations that resemble the tiered strategy of Netflix. The more robust theatrical releases are reserved for the top-flight titles; secondary titles get a nominal theatrical debut; ones that need the theatrical only to ensure press coverage are more likely to go day-and-date. But what all of these approaches have in common is they are driven by streamers’ priorities.
Pre-screening buzz suggests that “Bad Hair” could be embraced by younger audiences. Marketing hooks include ’90s nostalgia, complete with a former Destiny’s Child member, and big-name cast like Lena Waithe and Laverne Cox. However, it remains to be seen how it resonates for its core audience. Simien said he made the film for black women, though some who saw the film at the festival were unimpressed by the film’s stabs at social commentary. “The point he’s trying to make gets stifled by the narrative as it shifts between camp and horror,” wrote Valerie Complex in Awards Watch. “Maintaining Black hair in America is [its] own horror story, so the embellishments seem unnecessary.”
Nevertheless, Hulu’s enthusiasm for “Bad Hair” suggests a new variation on the idea of a “critic-proof” film. Home viewers are less likely to look up reviews for a movie when the subject matter appeals to them and all they have to do is press play. And “Bad Hair” has the sort of meaty genre-based hook that appeals to audiences who want their escapism with a side of substance.
“I think this has been really just a testament to the way your brain works and your talent and just how dedicated you are to not colonizing the stories of black woman,” Waithe said at the post-screening Q&A. “I think that’s why it feels so fresh and so special. We watch it we really feel like it’s for us … It’s really the movie that’s about our experiences to me. I’m a black woman that can’t look at this and not relate to it.”
In short, it’s the kind of film that could become a cultural phenomenon that drives subscribers — and in today’s emerging market, that can mean a whole lot more than ticket sales.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.