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As Sundance Finally Makes Big Deals, It’s Ruled By Streaming

Neon and Hulu's $15-million "Palm Springs" is a risky theatrical bet. But as Amazon suggests about its "Late Night" buy last year, crowd-pleasing comedies are key for streaming.

palm springs andy samberg

“Palm Springs”

Chris Willard

After a complete absence of deals during the Sundance Film Festival’s first few days, news of six acquisitions broke in quick succession over 24 hours, led by word that Neon and Hulu are close to nabbing the Andy Samberg rom-com “Palm Springs” for $15 million. The pair won a three-way bidding war with A24 and Netflix. Neon and Hulu’s offer, even more than Amazon’s “Late Night” acquisition last year, speaks to a market that’s increasingly driven by the value that a movie carries once it’s on streaming services’ digital shelves.

“Saturday Night Live” alum Samberg stars in what IndieWire’s David Ehrlich calls a “brilliant” reinvention of the “Groundhog Day” formula. He plays a wedding guest who befriends a reluctant maid of honor (Cristin Milioti). After their tryst is thwarted by a surreal interruption, the pair embrace a nihilistic philosophy and begin wreaking havoc on the nuptials.

The film, which counts Samberg and his Lonely Island collaborators Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone among its producers, has been well-received and was closely watched by buyers ahead of the festival as one of the few comedies up for grabs at Sundance. But its theatrical promise remains a risky proposition: one of Samberg’s most recent movies, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” grossed $9.54 million globally, with over 99% of that from the domestic box office.

Cristin Milioti, Andy Samberg. Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg attend the premiere of "Palm Springs" at the Library Center Theatre during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah2020 Sundance Film Festival - "Palm Springs" Premiere, Park City, USA - 26 Jan 2020

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

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Netflix’s interest in the title that was ultimately won by Neon and Hulu speaks to the film’s promise as a wise streaming investment.

Now that Disney controls Hulu, the company is focused on beefing up its offerings to position itself as a general-audience counterpart to Disney+ and compete with Netflix for adult audiences. While Netflix has increasingly gone after projects like “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman” at the ground level, Hulu’s film strategy is comprised in large part by its output deals with Neon, Annapurna, Bleecker Street, Lionsgate, and IFC Films — making Hulu a go-to destination for festival hits and hidden gems.

That will continue when corporate sibling Searchlight’s movies are expected to be available on the platform after the label’s HBO output deal expires in 2022. This year, Searchlight is reportedly close to closing a $12 million deal for the David Bruckner-directed thriller “The Night House.”

Meantime, Lionsgate is reportedly nearing a deal on Dominick Cooke’s “Ironbark” in the mid-seven figure range.

While Hulu’s theatrical partners coordinate with the streamer on acquisitions to varying degrees, Hulu and Neon’s collaboration runs deeper. They painted their 2017 deal output deal as “cutting-edge,” where all Neon’s titles would be available on the service following a theatrical release.

The companies worked together at last year’s Sundance to acquire the Lupita Nyong’o-starrer “Little Monsters” for a price in the mid-seven figures for North American rights. At Cannes, they bought domestic rights for Céline Sciamma’s acclaimed French love story “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Meantime, Neon has acquired films like last year’s Sundance selections “Clemency” and “Monos” and Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Parasite” by itself.

Apple made its first big buy at the festival Monday when it acquired the buzzy “Boys State,” Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s incisive profile of a handful of participants at one session of a long-running mock government program. As part of the deal, A24 will distribute the film theatrically while the tech company will release the film on its Apple TV+ platform, building out the partnership that includes joint-distribution of films in production by A24 including Sofia Coppola’s “On The Rocks.”

Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, and Peter Macdissi appear in Uncle Frank by Alan Ball, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Brownie Harris.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Uncle Frank”

Brownie Harris

A year after its closely watched spending spree, Amazon made its first big buy at this year’s Sundance when it reportedly spent $12 million for worldwide rights on “American Beauty” scribe Alan Ball’s drama “Uncle Frank.” It also acquired North American rights to Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself.”

The fact that Amazon executives weren’t spooked by the subpar theatrical performance of their last Sundance buys — “Late Night” ($13 million acquisition, $22.39 million gross), “Honey Boy” ($5 million/$3.19 million gross), “The Report” ($14 million/estimated $275,000 gross), and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” ($14 million/$7.36 million gross) — backs up studio head Jennifer Salke’s position that the company has no regrets. For Amazon, it’s all about Prime subscribers.

Here is an up-to-date list of Sundance acquisitions.

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