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Expect More Sundance Movies to Find an Audience, but Not a Theater

The pandemic meant last year's Sundance movies made very little at the box office, but it also set expectations for the festival's future.

Pam Springs

“Palm Springs”

Hulu

How to assess the financial success of Sundance 2020? COVID-19 makes standard box-office metrics impossible, but in sheer availability the titles reached a new high. About 85 percent of the 128 feature films and television programs that showed at Park City last year made their way to the broader public of North America, or will this year.

Revenue — the kind that’s visible to the naked eye — is another matter. All Sundance 2019 films that received a theatrical release totaled $125 million in domestic gross. Although pandemic delays mean multiple titles have yet to be released, the total box office for Sundance 2020 is a little over $18 million. That drop mirrors the overall box-office decline.

This is where we’d like to compare and contrast box-office figures, and make predictions about the current Sundance market, but the revenue or value generated by VOD, Premium VOD, or streaming — platforms where they (presumably) made the most money — are unknown. However, that alone speaks volumes.

At Sundance 2020, it was shocking when two of the year’s biggest sales went to Hulu with “Palm Springs” and “Bad Hair.” At Sundance 2021, with the world groomed by a year’s worth of home-first entertainment, the handwringing over Sundance streamer buys and the loss of big-screen debuts will decline. Potentially, so could prices: While the pandemic production delays and home-platform competition will fuel the market, streamers will no longer be forced to pay a premium to prove their worth. At Sundance — if not everywhere else — they are the new normal.

At the theatrical box office, Searchlight title “Downhill” accounted for nearly half of the Sundance total with $8.3 million. The Will Ferrell-Julia Louis-Dreyfuss remake debuted in the Premieres section for release in mid-February, ahead of the shutdowns. Next best is another Premieres title, Focus Features’ “Promising Young Woman.” Currently in theaters, it’s earned $4 million and should reach around $6 million as it continues to run parallel to Premium VOD play.

Only two other films surpassed $1 million in theaters: Premieres title “The Last Shift,” a Sony release, and Midnight selection “The Relic,” which IFC acquired from the Midnight section. That leaves under $4 million spread over the other titles that attempted some theatrical play, although few — if any — tried to play theaters alone.

In 2020, nine Sundance films were acquired for $1 million or higher:

Palm Springs (Neon/Hulu) $17.5M (some sources suggest higher)

Boys State (A24/Apple) $15M

Uncle Frank (Amazon) $12M

The Night House (Searchlight) $12M (dated July 16, 2021)

Bad Hair (Hulu) $8M

The 40-Year-Old Version (Netflix) est. $5M-$8M

Time (Amazon) $5 million

Kajillionaire (Focus) $5 million

Spree (RLJE) $2M

The Truffle Hunters (Sony Pictures Classics) $1.5M (dated March 12, 2021)

The Fight (Magnolia) est. $1M

Other titles acquired, with deal amounts unreported, included “Herself” (Amazon), “Wander Darkly” (Lionsgate), “Tesla” (IFC), “The Glorias” (Roadside Attractions), “Shirley” and “Spacestation Earth” (both Neon), “Sylvie’s Love” (Amazon), “On the Record” (HBO), as well as “The Courier” (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, March 19), “I Carry You With Me” (Sony Pictures Classics, spring 2021), and “The Father,” which SPC acquired before it screened at the festival. It debuts February 26.

The 2020 market was a little down from 2019, where four films sold for between $13 million-$15 million. Three of these were Amazon acquisitions, with expectations of an initial theatrical window. “The Report” went with a day-and-date release, while “Brittany Runs a Marathon” and “Late Night” had weak theatrical runs. Warner Bros. released the fourth title, “Blinded by the Light,” to similarly underwhelming results.

“Palm Springs” did get a few drive-ins last July (total gross $164,000) with a day-and-date Hulu premiere. The Disney-owned service reported the highest viewing for its first three days for any title they’d ever played, with around 2.5 million views over its first month.

Documentary “Boys State” was expected to be a crowd-pleaser in theaters before playing on Apple; it went straight to the streamer. Ditto Amazon buy “Uncle Frank.”

Sundance 2021 is a virtual festival; it’s shorter and will show fewer films. Some producers held back their titles in favor of a future festival that will give them the buzz and promotional push that’s specific to a live audience. We all look forward to that time, but even when it comes the expectations of its filmmakers, distributors, executives, and audiences will be forever changed.

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