As Netflix reportedly nears a mid-to-high seven-figure deal for “The 40-Year-Old-Version” after its Sundance Film Festival premiere, the talks mark a realization of the streamer’s strongest needs. Netflix, whose business model hinges on viewers always coming back for more, sees potential in the film’s writer-director-producer-star Radha Blank: The acquisition is less about this one film and more about establishing a lasting relationship with a fresh new voice.
Loosely based on Blank’s experiences as a New York playwright, the film won the Sundance Directing Award Saturday. She’s unknown by a mass audience, but Netflix is betting that its 61 million US subscribers will also respond to her — and potentially create a brand name that it can add to its lineup of exclusive deals like Ryan Murphy, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and Shonda Rhimes. (Netflix declined comment on the impending deal.)
Festival acquisitions have become increasingly rare for Netflix, which now favors producing prestige movies like “The Irishman” and hot series like “Stranger Things.” Festivals are more often reserved for splashy debuts of its own movies, like the Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana,” and “Crip Camp,” produced by Barack and Michelle Obama. Netflix had more movies in this year’s Sundance lineup when it started than any other US company.
But as the imminent Blank deal shows, Netflix will open its pocketbook for the right projects — namely, those that it can’t do itself. Here, Netflix is tapping Sundance the old-school way: It discovered a promising filmmaker whose movie (it hopes) will lead to lucrative financial results and launch a career.
Usually when that happens, filmmakers have options. Chloé Zhao’s career took off at Sundance, but as her career progresses, each new project finds her at another company. The filmmaker made her feature debut with “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” which premiered at Sundance in 2015 and led to a bigger budget for her second film, “The Rider” — and now, the massive “The Eternals,” Marvel’s November release. (In between those two, she also directed the Frances McDormand-starring “Nomadland,” which Searchlight Pictures is distributing later this year.)
Distributors for her films also scaled up, from Kino Lorber to Sony Pictures Classics and now Disney; for Netflix, the intent is global domination via one-stop shopping. That means it’s more likely to invest in a breakout like Blank with an eye toward developing future ideas in-house — which could lead to more subscribers.
Though it was lost in the deluge of Sundance headlines last week, news circulated that Netflix laid off 15 people in its marketing division, including some publicists working on titles at Sundance. As the company reported fourth-quarter earnings that rose above expectations, the layoffs apparently stemmed from a broader effort to direct resources toward promoting the platform as a whole over individual projects. That suggests additional pressure on acquisitions that serve its long-term goals.
Netflix’s only other scripted acquisition at this point is “His House,” another debut effort. Remi Weekes’s Midnight movie focuses on a young refugee couple who, after their escape from war-torn Sudan, struggle to adjust to a small town in England where evil lurks beneath the surface. Like “Get Out” and “Us,” it offers an appealing blend of genre and socially relevant plot.
Shortly before its Sundance premiere, Netflix also bought “Mucho Mucho Amor,” the documentary from Cristina Costantini (“Science Fair”) and Kareem Tabsch (“The Last Resort”) about Walter Mercado, the iconic Puerto Rican astrologer who was watched daily by 120 million people, including his sudden disappearance from public life in 2007.
That purchase is the latest illustration of why Netflix is so interested in acquiring documentaries: The “Mucho Mucho Amor” filmmakers had an idea and unique access for a film that, when complete, represented something Netflix couldn’t have necessarily done on its own. It’s a scenario that has helped finished documentaries command enormous prices, like the $10 million Netflix paid for “Knock Down the House,” last year’s Sundance Audience Favorite Award-winner.
That was a record bested this year with the reported $12 million sale of Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ “Boys State” to Apple and A24. The film, with its raw but feel-good look at a trio of Texas boys navigating an intense weeklong mock government program, is a perfect fit for Apple, which is focused on stocking its fledgling Apple TV+ platform with high-quality movies with social impact. The film, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, also fits well with what audiences expect from A24, whose theatrical release will continue to raise the film’s profile and qualify it for awards consideration.
Meanwhile, theatrical distributors are focused on prestige titles that could resonate with audiences and win awards. Searchlight brought two movies to the festival: “Downhill,” the “Force Majeure” remake starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, and Benh Zeitlin’s reimagined Peter Pan story “Wendy.” Both have easily marketed elements — big stars and a very familiar story— that the distributor hopes will make audiences eager to see them in theaters.
However, Searchlight also experienced its first Sundance without the word “Fox” in its title, reflecting its new ownership by Disney, a company with its own massive streaming ambitions. Unlike Netflix, Hulu, or Apple, Disney+ made no acquisitions at Sundance this year — a reminder that while the festival may offer up some new opportunities in the streaming wars, it’s only one fragment of a much larger battlefield
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.