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Sundance 2023: Slashed Streaming Budgets and Theatrical Woes Won’t Dampen Sales

As for all-night bidding wars, their days are numbered.

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 19:  Festival signage is seen at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street during the 2007 Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2007 in Park City, Utah.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

The Egyptian Theater in Park City, UT

Getty Images

A lot has changed in the three years since Sundance was an in-person affair. Streamers now favor production over acquisition and have scaled back their budgets. Box office is still in the throes of recovery — and the indie sector sees the worst of it. No one knows how the hybrid factor will impact the festival, only that it will.

All of that is true, and yet: Optimism abounds.

“I felt like there were fewer titles that were available [last year], and it seems like this year I’m gonna be right back to camping out the Eccles for four or five days, which is great,” Kent Sanderson, president of acquisitions and ancillary distribution at Bleecker Street, told IndieWire. “What that yields in terms of the marketplace, I don’t know. Everything is evolving at an even more rapid clip.”

About 20 percent of the 100-plus movies that play Park City are not up for grabs. IndieWire spoke with distributors, agents, and producers with movies at the festival who were understandably bullish on Sundance prospects. They also agreed that while buyers are cautious (theatrical in particular), the festival will fulfill a real need for product — the right product, anyway.

Multiple sales agents said Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, Searchlight, and A24 have been vocal about needing at least one movie for their slates. Neon could use more on the specialized end, one source suspected. Another source suspected that some, like IFC Films, may not be as active as usual but will still be on the ground, though an IFC Films insider said the company will be there with a full staff looking to acquire for each of its platforms.

Sources also said Apple expressed interest in several available titles and would be willing to bid on the most commercial options to get what they need. Others said Sundance will reveal how players like HBO operate in 2023. The expectation is there’s something for everyone.

Agents said they see increased Sundance activity from companies, dedicating staff both on the ground and with the virtual festival. One agent said that Sundance 2023 favors a far more independent slate than recent years, which means good things for buyers and sellers. “All those ingredients generally lead to good health,” the agent said. “So we hope quality content cuts through.”

Sundance Film Festival

Among the titles singled out for major sales are “Cat Person” with Emilia Jones, John Carney’s “Flora and Son,” and the Will Ferrell-produced “Theater Camp.” International breakouts should be attractive to streamers like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple that need local-language content. One sales agent on the documentary end said he would not be surprised if theatrical players jumped on documentary releases playing in competition such as “Going Varsity in Mariachi” or “The Eternal Memory.”

“Things are gonna be a little more disciplined, ” said the documentary executive. “There is going to be more formality, if not limitation, in what does or doesn’t get acquired.”

The executive added that there’s still opportunity for market growth. “It forces everyone in this space to do what is important, which is create the highest form of art,” they said. “Streamers want high-impact content that they can market and that will resonate with their audiences. It almost makes it more efficient as a financier to know where to put our capital.”

All executives who spoke to IndieWire reserved their greatest optimism for commercial titles. Distributors want this year’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (an A24 production that premiered at SXSW 2022) or “Smile” (a low-budget Paramount production) — movies with a communal factor that demand to be seen in a theater.

“No one is in a desperate need for, ‘I need to have everything,'” said one top producer with a film in the festival. “It’s more discriminating and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Archer Gray CEO Vinay Singh, whose “The Persian Version” is in the U.S. Dramatic competition, says this year’s slate is loaded with movies that will speak to specific distributors and offer a focused sense of their core audiences and how they can sell to them.

“There’s a lot of projects where it’s very clear who that bullseye is,” Singh said. “[Sundance 2023] is kind of a return to what the festivals were meant to be. They were meant to be discovery engines for projects … it had become too many things at once, and I’m hoping the pandemic, unfortunately, has reset that a little bit.”

Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur

“CODA”

Apple TV+

One sales agent even argued that the streamers’ retrenchment could offer a silver lining: Production budgets are being slashed, but the content spend is still there. Even in the case of a major buy like “CODA,” which Apple acquired for a record $25 million in 2020, streamers acknowledge that it could be cheaper to acquire or license movies than it would be to produce in-house.

However, even a mega-deal like “CODA” demands that movies be made  — as agents like to say — “at a price.” Confluential Films CEO Tommy Oliver, who has four movies in the 2023 festival including “Fancy Dance” and “Young. Wild. Free.,” said he’s seen many independent packages with price tags that suggest they already had a major buyer.

“‘We want to make this movie for $15 million.’ Well, that necessitates a giant sale or theatrical, and it’s probably fine if Searchlight is making the movie,” he said. “But if you want Searchlight to buy the movie, you don’t make it for that number. Because then you’re going to be in a place where you need a big sale.”

Like others, he suggested the 2023 Sundance market reflected a need for “rebalance.” Said Oliver, “It’s about researching, understanding what the comps are, and best as you can figure out where things are going and making sure you’re within a number that is responsible. It’s always nice to be the outlier, but you can’t plan to get lucky.”

So far, 2023 lacks a consensus movie destined for a mega sale on the par of “CODA” or even last year’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which Apple again picked up in the $15 million range. Last year, the documentary “Fire of Love” had multiple bidders out of Sundance; in 2020, the “CODA” deal was hammered out in 48 hours. However, multiple agents and sources said the days of all-night bidding wars are likely numbered. Discerning buyers — and virtual options — mean that sales could stretch out for weeks or even months.

“It’s no longer the case where you’re gonna have two people who are watching it and making the decisions,” Oliver said. “You will sometimes have 50 to 100 people literally watching something before you can get a ‘yes.’ Where it’s got to go all through the organization, because it can now. That cat’s out of the bag, and it’s never going back.”

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