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Sundance 2021 Market: Streamers Set Prices, but Theatrical Distributors Made a Big Impression

Sales for hot titles out of the festival showed votes of confidence in the future of the theatrical release.




With a streamer smashing the all-time sales record and an at-home program that was genuinely exciting, the success of the virtual Sundance Film Festival marked a move forward for an industry that has long resisted change. But the streaming-centric festival was by no means a nail in the coffin for the theatrical experience: Traditional distributors have been active, a vote of confidence in the continued importance of brick-and-mortar cinemas.

Aside from Apple’s $25 million record acquisition of “CODA,” every other deal announced since the festival began last Thursday was from a theatrical distributor. And while the biggest yet-to-close deals will see the buzziest films land at streamers, that’s simply a continuation of a pre-pandemic state of affairs where Netflix, Amazon, and Apple set the price for the most commercially appealing titles.

At this Sundance, theatrical buyers’ willingness to act quick in response to their instincts and early buzz was a winning strategy. Neon announced the first deal of the festival with “Flee,” just hours after the animated documentary’s Day One premiere.

The film, a look at a refugee’s journey from Afghanistan, premiered at the same time as one of the most anticipated titles, “Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” and became available to watch before many viewers had finished “CODA.” While those two movies took some of the attention away from “Flee,” those that did watch it had an overwhelmingly positive response to its artistry and empathy. The film went on to win the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize.

Neon closed a low seven-figure deal late at night. It was so quick, in fact, that other distributors interested in the title didn’t even have a chance to bid the next morning as planned. Several observers wondered if the sellers were too hasty in closing bidding before other buyers could respond to word-of-mouth

While Neon partnered with Hulu on last year’s Sundance pickups “Palm Springs” and “Bad Hair,” it announced Tuesday that its co-distributor on “Flee” would be not a streamer, but another theatrical player: Participant Media. During the pandemic, Participant has evolved its strategy of making events out of screenings of social-impact films.

Neon’s choice to team up with the distributor is a vote of confidence in the role that theatrical will continue to play in launching specialty films. While many viewers watched “Parasite” for the first time on Hulu after its Oscars sweep last year, Bong Joon Ho’s film became a cultural phenomenon before it hit the platform. And Neon’s exclusive output deal with the streamer means “Flee” — and its other Sundance pickup, “Ailey” — could travel a similar path.

Other early acquisitions include Magnolia’s pickup of Dash Shaw’s psychedelic animated tale “Cryptozoo” and Sony Pictures Classics’ nabbing of horse-racing drama “Jockey.” Both deals closed before “Jockey” star Clifton Collins Jr. earned a Special Jury Award for Acting and “Cryptozoo” won the NEXT Innovator Award.

Apple’s “CODA” acquisition continued to seem like a good bet when the film swept Tuesday’s awards with four wins, including taking home a Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. On Wednesday morning, during a virtual live stream conversation recapping the festival (titled “It’s a Wrap”), Sundance replayed some of a “CODA” panel in which director Sian Heder revealed some of Apple executives’ plan for the film.

“They said ‘This is not a film, it’s a movement,'” Heder said. “This is the start of a movement and we are not only supporting the film, we want to support the movement.’ That movement includes deaf filmmakers, filmmakers with disabilities, writers — really empowering the community, really trying to create educational materials around the film. When people see a story like this, with these characters in leading roles, not in secondary roles, these kinds of movies can make money, they can be financially viable, they can have mass appeal to an audience.”

While Apple’s technology may be in the pocket of millions of people, fully realizing those goals will undoubtedly require the kind of prestige and reach that only a theatrical release can bring. It’s very likely that Apple will team up with a theatrical partner, as it did with A24 for “Boys State,” to boost the profile of “CODA” beyond the streaming fray.

But the headline-making deal isn’t without trouble. The film had pre-sold in several territories through Pathé, though domestic sales agents CAA and ICM positioned it at the festival with a title whose worldwide rights could be sold to a streamer; the pre-sold territories would not be an issue.

But at least one of those international buyers said the Apple deal caught them off guard: Variety reported that at least two international rights-holders learned of the deal through media reports. Andrea Goretti, the CEO of Eagle Pictures, said that the company was still planning to release “CODA” for Christmas and has already sold Pay TV and free TV rights in Italy, though it had received a call on February 1 from Pathé inquiring about selling back those rights.

It’s the other side of a streaming-centric film market, where theatrical buyers who took a risk on financing “CODA” are left feeling cast aside once the project sparks the interest of a wealthy streaming player.

Meantime, expect news of other deals to continue trickling in. Netflix, which hasn’t yet closed a deal during this year’s festival, is vying for two other major titles, “Summer of Soul” — which won Grand Jury and Audience prizes — and Rebecca Hall’s racial drama “Passing.” Deadline reported Wednesday that the streamer is nearing a deal in excess of $15 million for the film.

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