On Thursday, the seventh full day of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, temperatures in snowbound Park City dipped down to a frigid 17 degrees — even as North America’s preeminent showcase for independent cinema remained a superheated environment, backdropping a trio of record-shattering mega deals and some of the most frenzied bidding this Hollywood-on-the-slopes event has ever seen.
The chief takeaways: 1. After an off year last year, Sundance has resuscitated itself as a seller’s market, with deep-pocketed streaming services competing with traditional distributors to snag North American rights to a deep bench of commercial titles screening in competition. And 2. at a time when the company’s overall theatrical-distribution strategy remains unclear, Amazon Studios has journeyed to the base of the Wasatch Mountains prepared to lay down serious cash.
On the heels of an all-night bidding war on January 26, Amazon paid $13 million — a festival record for a U.S.-only deal — for rights to Late Night, a workplace comedy starring, written, and produced by Mindy Kaling (playing a so-called writers room “diversity hire”) that co-stars Emma Thompson as a tart-tongued New York talk-show host. “We can’t wait to share this wonderful movie with our customers, first in theaters and then on Amazon Prime Video,” Amazon’s content chief Jennifer Salke said in a statement that hints at her game plan going forward.
The company has a history of splashy deal-making at Sundance, having spent $10 million at the fest in 2016 to acquire Manchester by the Sea and $12 million a year later on U.S. rights for festival darling The Big Sick. But early Monday morning, Amazon eclipsed its own new record by shelling out $14 million for North American rights to The Report, a political drama directed by Scott Z. Burns that stars Adam Driver as a Senate staffer investigating the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Then, just hours later, that record fell too with New Line acquiring Bend It Like Beckham filmmaker Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light — a coming-of-age drama set to the music of Bruce Springsteen that some Sundance buyers took to calling Sing It Like Springsteen — for $15 million.
While Netflix and Fox Searchlight have spent lavishly at Sundance in past years — the streaming giant picked up ten titles for a combined price tag of $36.5 million in 2017, and Fox’s prestige studio division paid a record-setting $17.5 million for worldwide distribution rights to The Birth of a Nation in 2016 — both have remained relatively subdued this year, acquiring just one title apiece as of this article’s publication. And with such distributors as the Weinstein Company and Broad Green respectively junked for parts and shuttered, the bullish market coming to define this year’s Sundance was hardly a fait accompli.
But on the heels of purchasing Three Identical Strangers and Assassination Nation at last year’s festival, Neon — Radius/Alamo Drafthouse alum Tom Quinn and Tim League’s two-year-old cool-kid distribution shingle — put Hollywood on notice of its ambitions via a quartet of high-profile acquisitions: the Riley Keough–starring horror film The Lodge (which Neon reportedly bought for $2 million); a mid-seven-figure deal in partnership with Hulu for Little Monsters, a zombie comedy starring Lupita Nyong’o and Josh Gad; Monos, a Lord of the Flies–esque survivalist saga starring Julianne Nicholson as an American woman taken hostage by a dysfunctional group of teenage Colombian militants (price: undisclosed); and Luce, a dramatic thriller starring Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer.
Also of note this year, A24 got on the Sundance scoreboard as both a buyer and a seller. Last week, the indie studio behind the Oscar-winning drama Moonlight sold two titles to HBO Films: Native Son, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel directed by visual artist turned filmmaker Rashid Johnson and adapted for the screen by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and Share, the debut feature of Pippa Bianco that focuses on a 16-year-old girl (Rhianne Barreto) who discovers a cell-phone video of her sexual assault has been circulating throughout her high school. On the buying side, A24 picked up American distribution rights for The Farewell, starring Awkwafina as a Chinese-American woman who travels to China to visit her ailing grandmother, only to discover at a family reunion that her extended clan has shielded the old woman from her grim diagnosis. And in December, weeks before its festival debut, the New York–based distributor picked up the romantic drama The Souvenir, featuring Tilda Swinton and her real-life daughter Honor Swinton-Byrne — a bona fide breakout star at the fest. The younger Swinton portrays a 20-something film student embarking on an affair with an older man (Tom Burke) while the Swinton elder plays her none-too-happy-about-it mom (A24 already has a sequel to the film in the works).
Meanwhile, Apple entered the Sundance fray for the first time by snapping up global rights to the Jada Pinkett-Smith–produced coming-of-age drama Hala — presumably intended for the tech behemoth’s streaming service set to launch later this year.
Herewith, these are the Sundance films you can expect to see in theaters and streaming services in the coming months:
1091 Media (formerly known as the Orchard):
Halston — dir. Frédéric Tcheng — undisclosed (in conjunction with CNN Films)
Them That Follow — dir. Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage — undisclosed
The Souvenir — dir. Joanna Hogg — undisclosed
The Farewell — dir. Lulu Wang — $6 million
Late Night — dir. Nisha Ganatra — $13 million
The Report — dir. Scott Burns — $14 million
Brittany Runs a Marathon — dir. Paul Downs Colaizzo — $14 million
Honey Boy — dir. Alma Ha’rel — $5 million
One Child Nation — dir. Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang — “high six figures”
Hala — dir. Minhal Baig — undisclosed
Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen — dir. Hepi Mita — undisclosed
The Tomorrow Man — dir. Noble Jones — “an eight-figure deal”
Lavender — dir. Matthew Puccini — undisclosed
Native Son — dir. Rashid Johnson — undisclosed
Share — dir. Pippa Bianco — a “seven-figure deal” (in association with A24)
Ask Dr. Ruth — dir. Ryan White — undisclosed
The Nightingale — dir. Jennifer Kent — undisclosed
Official Secrets — dir. Gavin Hood — “in the $2 million range”
The Mountain — dir. Rick Alverson — undisclosed
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch — dir. Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky — undisclosed
The Brink — dir. Alison Klayman — undisclosed
Little Monsters — dir. Abe Forsythe — mid-seven figures (in partnership with Hulu)
The Lodge — dir. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala — just under $2 million
Monos — dir. Alejandro Landes — undisclosed
Luce — dir. Julius Onah — undisclosed (in association with Topic Studios)
Delhi Crime Story — dir. Richie Mehta — undisclosed
American Factor — dir. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert — “under $3 million”
Blinded by the Light — dir. Gurinder Chadha — $15 million
Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men — dir. Sacha Jenkins —undisclosed
Sony Pictures Classics:
David Crosby: Remember My Name — dir. AJ Eaton — “low seven figures”
Where’s My Roy Cohn — dir. Matt Tyrnauer — undisclosed
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