Every year, when I start researching this article, I try to guess the biggest-grossing title at the last year’s festival. This one surprised me: For 2019, that distinction went to “Fighting With My Family.” The United Artists release of the British WWE biopic backed by Dwayne Johnson grossed $23 million. But when it came to the Sundance 2019 acquisitions with big price tags, and expectations, those were disappointments.
All told, domestic grosses for last year’s films come to around $125 million. That is way down from 2018, which passed the $200 million mark. And, by point of comparison, “Avengers: Endgame” grossed $357 million in its first three days. No one expects Sundance movies to behave like Marvel movies, of course, but the massive disparity illustrates the state of the theatrical market — especially when so much of the 2019 Sundance box office stemmed from wide releases that favored chains rather than arthouses.
Other than “Fighting With My Family,” no other 2019 Sundance film grossed as much as $20 million domestic. In 2018, three crossed that mark: “Hereditary,” “Searching” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” There were four 2018 titles that made between $10 million-$20 million, and there were four in 2019 (“The Farewell,” “Late Night,” “Apollo 11,” “Blinded By the Light”). In the $5 million-$10 million range, there were two in 2019, and four in 2018.
“Fighting With My Family”
Prices didn’t set records last year; Searchlight’s $17.5 million for “The Birth of a Nation” retains that. But four titles sold for between $13 million-$15 million, three of them to Amazon. All fell flat with a combined total of about $35 million in domestic theatrical gross and a cost basis of about $60 million, not including marketing. For Amazon’s “Late Night” ($13 million for U.S. only), one estimate had them spending an additional $33 million hoping to make it a success.
Amazon also paid $13 million for “Brittany Runs a Marathon” and $14 million for “The Report.” The high-end sprees of Sundance 2019 also included New Line’s $15 million buy of “Blinded By the Light” (though not for three key territories, including the U.K.) for release by Warner Bros.
By late in the year, Amazon broke its pledge to respect theatrical windows and reduced some theatrical play to even shorter periods than Netflix.
Noticeably absent from any of the top purchases was Netflix. Leading studio-owned distributors — Focus, Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics — were either absent or at the low end. A24, Neon, IFC, Magnolia, among others, made more modest acquisitions.
For specialized theaters, Park City didn’t mean much of a bounty. Films that made over $10 million were very quick wide releases, favoring major chains over more limited venues (including the significant share of IMAX locations for “Apollo 11”). In 2018, “Three Identical Strangers,” “RBG,” and “Eighth Grade” each had a greater reliance on core specialized theaters.
The one standout acquisition success from 2019 was “The Farewell.” A24 bought Lulu Wang’s film for a reported $6 million. Its domestic gross of a little under $18 million (with minor foreign results) plus post-theatrical revenues should put it into profit.
“Late Night” and “Blinded By the Light” made $15 million and $12 million, respectively; their purchase prices and marketing precluded any shot at profit beyond library/streaming value. “Apollo 11” at $11 million rounded out the $10 million+ grossers.
Among the highest-priced buys, “The Report” was the first to cry uncle and emphasize streaming. In June, “Late Night” saw its disappointing wide release; in July, Amazon announced that “The Report” — initially believed to have awards chances for Annette Bening and for screenplay — would only see a limited theatrical release in November prior to Prime availability. Later, Amazon placed “The Aeronauts” in the same Prime-priority pattern — despite a production designed to favor IMAX screens. (Amazon opened its International Oscar nominee “Les Miserables” to a standard release, but to minimal interest so far).
Amazon also spent $5 million to acquire “Honey Boy.” The Shia LaBeouf passion project also had a conventional release, with a $3 million gross.
Other acquisitions included several documentaries. “Honeyland” (Neon) only grossed $711,000, but is both an International and Documentary Feature Oscar nominee. “David Crosby: Remember Ny Name” and “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” each saw similar grosses. Jury prize winner “One Child Nation” went to Amazon Prime, “American Factory” and “The Edge of Democracy” (also Oscar nominees) went to Netflix.
US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner “Clemency” went to Neon some weeks after the festival, for an unspecified price. Neon delayed release until the very end of the year, hoping that acclaim for Alfre Woodard’s performance would translate to awards attention. That didn’t happen, and the film has made just $131,000 to date. IFC picked up U.S. rights for “Official Secrets” for around $2 million; it grossed a little less.
A24 brought “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” to the festival; it grossed $4.5 million. Most of the other acquisitions and/or previously bought titles went for low prices and had sub-$1 million grosses. And among the 100+ features showing, the vast majority has seen further exposure, many with token theatrical play and focusing on streaming as well as other home viewing options.
As always, the economics for individual films and releases vary. And the purpose of Sundance is to spotlight new talent as well as films that are not meant for the mainstream. On that basis, last year achieved its goals. In any event, the growth of new outlets needing product more than makes up for the continuing steady decline of the theatrical specialized market.