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Sundance Buyers in the Streaming Era: How 14 Players Are Approaching the Festival

From streamers to arthouse players, major buyers are tuning into the virtual Sundance experience.

The marquee of the Egyptian Theatre is seen on the sixth day of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Sundance

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

While theatrical exhibition has taken a major hit during the pandemic, buyers are still expected to arrive at the virtual Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, eager to stock up on titles for release in cinemas later this year. But those distributors will have to contend with new rules that have taken shape over the last few years: If a streaming service wants a movie and is willing to pay, good luck.

Streamers’ deep pockets and the fact that they’re operating with a completely different set of equations means that a movie priced for streaming is becoming tougher and tougher for theatrical distributors to afford. It’s a scenario that’s led to the emergence of partnerships between the likes of Hulu and Neon, and Apple and A24 — the streamers get the prestige bump and marketing budget that comes with a theatrical release, and the theatrical distributors get a chance to show a very expensive movie in theaters, with less pressure to break even with ticket sales.

Meantime, aside from Sony, all the major studios have or will launch their own streaming services. They’re hungry for new content amid a streaming arms race. All of these are factors that are sure to influence the market at Sundance this year. Below, check out snapshots of how 12 distributors are approaching buying at the festival.

Streaming Agenda-Setters

Amazon

Founded: 1994 (though the film studio division is 10 years old)
First Sundance acquisition: “Love & Friendship” ahead of the 2016 festival
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Time” in 2020

After a $41 million shopping spree at the 2019 festival that included “Late Night” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” yielded poor box-office results, many observers were quick to label Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke’s strategy a failure. But two years on, the festival acquisitions environment has reoriented around that model: where box-office potential has little to do with how much a movie can fetch. If Amazon wants a title, no price is too high: From the $5 million it spent last year on “Time” to the over $20 million last summer for “One Night in Miami.” It’s likely the streamer will make bids for the few movies with great commercial potential.

Netflix

Founded: 1997
First Sundance acquisition: “The Fundamentals of Caring” ahead of the 2016 festival
Last big Sundance acquisition: “The 40-Year-Old Version” in 2020

Last year, Netflix was one of Sundance’s largest presences. It used the festival to launch its own titles, including Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana” and Obama-produced “Crip Camp.” It was also one of the hungriest buyers, nabbing titles including “Mucho Mucho Amor” and “The 40-Year-Old Version.” The streamer has 71 original movies lined up for this year, but opted not to launch any of them at this year’s virtual festival. While that’s a massive slate, Netflix is still expected to bring its appetite to the festival, continuing a string of acquisitions that began at fall festivals with “I Care a Lot,” “Malcolm and Marie,” and “Pieces of a Woman.”

Apple

Founded: 1976
First Sundance acquisition: “Hala” in 2019
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Boys State” in 2020

When Apple broke a documentary sales record at last year’s festival with its acquisition of “Boys State,” it did so under an evolution of the theatrical-grosses-don’t-matter paradigm. By teaming up with A24, Apple smartly strengthened the cinematic credentials of its fledgling Apple TV+ brand through a partnership with one of the most beloved names in indie film. More practically speaking, the move allowed A24 to work its marketing genius on the acclaimed movie. And the theatrical release would have boosted the film’s profile, but the pandemic derailed that play.

Now over a year into the streamer’s launch, Apple is all-in on an expensive quality-over-quantity strategy; it likely has its eye on some of the social-justice themed documentaries at this year’s festival.

Studios in a Streaming era

Disney

Founded: 1923
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Palm Springs” in 2020 through Hulu

After Miramax showed how Sundance buys could make for brilliant business movies with acquisitions like “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” Disney joined the indie gold rush by buying Miramax in 1993. Now no longer in Disney’s hands, Miramax is a shell of its former self. But smart corporate takeovers have once again led Disney to be a major force at Sundance three decades later.

Searchlight has long been interested in festival films with commercial potential, like last year’s reported $12 million acquisition of the Rebecca Hall-starring horror film “The Night House.” And Hulu threw around serious money with major acquisitions including “Palm Springs” in a nearly $20 million deal with Neon.

While most attention has been on Disney+, Hulu and its general-audience offerings is crucial for Disney’s attempt to topple Netflix as streaming king. With a recent announcement that Searchlight would begin releasing some titles straight to Hulu, it’s likely that Sundance acquisitions could be increasingly important for Disney to realize its goals.

ViacomCBS

Founded: Paramount started in 1912; current iteration formed in 2019
Last big Sundance acquisition: “The Intervention,” 2016

While ViacomCBS’s subsidiaries have not been the most active festival buyers in recent years, the newly reconstituted conglomerate’s streaming ambitions should be a driving force in changing that. Paramount+ is set to launch March 4, making ViacomCBS among the last major players to make a serious move in the streaming wars.

Paramount+’s scope is ambitious: Sources say executives have a mandate to assemble a slate of 100 films in short order. Buyers from cable networks like MTV and VH1 will be shopping for titles that will air on their channels before hitting the streaming service. MTV Documentary Films made a notable buy out of TIFF last fall with “76 Days.”

NBCUniversal

Founded: Universal started in 1912; Comcast ownership since 2013
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Kajillionaire” in 2020 through Focus

From “The Kids Are All Right” in 2010 to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in 2017, Universal’s Focus label has acquired some of the most memorable — and commercially successful — Sundance features in the last decade. The theatrical distributor is expected to continue on that path, but it’s likely that its parent company’s new streaming service, Peacock, could want a piece of the action as well. The service so far has marketed itself as a go-to destination for library favorites like “The Office,” but Peacock will need to follow the lead of its more established competitors by stocking must-see films if it wants to stand a fighting chance.

WarnerMedia

Founded: Warner Bros. dates back to 1923; AT&T ownership since 2018
Last big Sundance acquisition: “On the Record” in 2020 through HBO Max

With a bold day-and-date strategy for the entirety of its 2021 slate, WarnerMedia showed it was willing it risk it all for HBO Max’s success. Amid a dearth of production and competition heating up in the streaming space, it’s likely HBO Max will be shopping at Sundance for more bold originals, like last year’s controversial “On the Record,” while buyers for HBO proper will continue to sniff out titles that will continue the premium cabler’s legacy.

Arthouse Distributors

Sony Pictures Classics

Founded: 1992
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Nine Days” in 2020

After Paramount+ launches in March, it will make Sony an outlier as the only major studio without its own streaming service. The pandemic has seen Sony “Greyhound” to Apple and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” to Netflix amid a theatrical slump, while the studio’s specialty label has largely held steady with its plan to release a trove of festival gems in theaters. Expect Sony to continue making acquisitions for awards films, though competition is sure to stiffen amid competition from streamers vying for some of the same kind of titles that SPC built its reputation on.

IFC Films

Founded: 1999
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Tesla” in 2020

IFC Films and Sundance are an inextricable pair, so much so that one of its labels bears the Sundance name. The distributor’s early adoption of a day-and-date model over a decade ago helped it remain nimble when the pandemic struck. It found success with pandemic drive-in releases, including with Sundance pickup “Relic,” and enjoyed explosive growth of its IFC Films Unlimited streaming service. Meantime, parent AMC Networks has been pushing a streaming bundle that includes the IFC service and Shudder, another recent hot festival buyer, while sibling RJLE Films kicked made an early 2021 pickup of “Prisoners of the Ghostland.” All together it paints a picture of a corporate parent whose subsidiaries are all over-performing for their size and together can stand a fighting chance in an era of media consolidation.

Kino Lorber

Founded: 2009
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Identifying Features” in 2020

Another Sundance-acquisitions stalwart, Kino Lorber has similarly found a niche amid the pandemic. Its Kino Marquee virtual cinema initiative teamed up with local arthouses around the country, a recognition of the value that fans of its foreign and indie titles enjoy about the theatrical experience. And Kino Now, launched in 2019, is a TVOD service that offers rentals and purchases of some of the distributors’ films. While bigger streaming players represent competition across the board, Kino Lorber’s niche is more secure given its less-than mainstream sensibilities.Last

A24

Founded: 2012
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Boys State” in 2020 with Apple

Even outside the industry, the A24 name has come to carry a lot of weight for audiences who go wild for the distributor’s conversation-starting films. The distributor successfully used last year’s Sundance to build buzz for titles like “Minari” and “Zola.” While its buying wasn’t prolific, it was significant in scope: Its “Boys State” acquisition broke sales records and the documentary won a Grand Jury Prize. With a slate of high-profile films ready for release when theatergoing makes its return, A24 may be quiet at this year’s festival. But expect any deals it does make, either alone or in smart partnerships, to be headline-grabbing.

Magnolia Pictures

Founded: 2001
Last big Sundance acquisition: “The Fight” in 2020

Sundance acquisitions have been key in establishing Magnolia as an arthouse leader over the last two decades. It earned one of its most recent Oscar nominations for “RBG,” a 2018 festival pickup With Participant, while midnight movies like last year’s acquisition of “Amulet” have demonstrated the distributor’s savvy in the genre space. With a day-and-date strategy that dates back over a decade and a three-year-old streaming service, Magnolia Selects, the company was ready to pivot during the pandemic. Expect the distributor to be shopping for both docs and narrative titles at the festival, while it’s looking for international buyers for its buzzy Rodney Ascher film “A Glitch in the Matrix.”

Neon

Founded: 2017
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Palm Springs” with Hulu in 2020

In just a few short years, Neon has grown into a tastemaking force that’s not afraid of disruption. Whether it’s delivering Bong Joon Ho a historic Oscars sweep for “Parasite” or partnering with Hulu and its deep pockets to make a theatrical releases work, Neon is riding the wave of a film industry undergoing deep changes. With “Palm Springs” deemed a success and the Oscar glow still a factor, industry players are eagerly watching Neon to see what kind of innovation it brings to Sundance dealmaking tables.

Bleecker Street

Founded: 2014
Last big Sundance acquisition: “Together Together” ahead of this year’s festival

One crucial theme emerging in festival markets over the last couple of years is how large a role Hulu has in the mix. While Bleecker Street has not done any direct acquisitions with Hulu a la Neon, a 2019 output deal means the Bleecker Street is a key source of festival titles on the streaming service. That’s likely a big factor when it comes to negotiation time for the theatrical distributor.

This article was updated to include two additional distributors for a total of 14.

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