The spasm of big-bet deal-making that convulsed last year’s Sundance Film Festival can be summarized in four words: maximal outlay, minimal intake. In 2019, Amazon Studios arrived as the biggest player in festival history, shelling out $47 million for five titles including Late Night and Brittany Runs a Marathon, which, combined, earned a dispiriting $33.3 million over their theatrical runs. New Line, meanwhile, ponied up an eye-watering $15 million for Blinded by the Light only to see the jukebox musical bomb with just $18 million in global grosses.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this year’s installment of North America’s preeminent showcase for independent cinema got off to a sluggish start, notably absent the kind of late-night bidding wars and streamer-versus-studio jockeying that came to define the last fest. But by its conclusion Sunday, the erstwhile Hollywood on Ice had notched a healthy batch of megadeals indicating that this sleepy ski town at the base of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains remains a decent-enough movie marketplace even while picking up new relevancy in the TV space, thanks to an escalating arms race in the streaming wars.
Hulu, in conjunction with upstart indie distributor Neon, set a new Sundance record, paying $17,500,000.69 for the crowd-pleasing, Andy Samberg–starring romantic comedy Palm Springs (it just edged out the previous acquisition record, held by Fox Searchlight’s 2016 The Birth of a Nation, by literal pocket change). Apple and A24 joined forces to topple another festival record — the highest price paid for a documentary feature — spending $12 million on Boys State, a political coming-of-age story that delves into the conventions of America’s democratic process (which claimed the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary). Searchlight Pictures made its first festival foray out from under the Fox banner, landing worldwide distribution rights to the “sadistically loud” Midnight category horror-thriller The Night House for $12 million. And even after Amazon’s disastrous 2019 shopping spree — at a time when the Seattle-based company’s commitment to traditional theatrical rollouts is increasingly cast in doubt — its studio arm proved still capable of reaching into Jeff Bezos’s deep pockets, splurging on the intergenerational period road-trip drama Uncle Frank for $12 million.
Contrast that batch of eight-figure deals to 2014, when not a single Sundance title sold for more than $5 million. But unlike distribution agreements made in the days before streaming services began to assert their dominance in Park City (Netflix, we are thinking of your $12.5 million Mudbound spend in 2017 here), most of this year’s headline-grabbing deals encompass both a film’s theatrical run as well as its streaming video-on-demand rights. The calculus surrounding these bundled arrangements is still kind of fuzzy: The new wisdom holds that these movies may not break even at the box office, but will provide both bragging rights and a widened subscriber base for relative tech newcomers like Apple, which made its first Sundance purchase with the Jada Pinkett Smith–produced drama Hala last year.
These package deals also reflect Sundance’s shift away from its time-honored reputation as a bottom-of-the-slopes antidote to movie-world corporatization into a locus of hot commerce for the small screen. Exhibit A: Hulu’s other big deal, an $8 million global pact to distribute Dear White People filmmaker Justin Simien’s campy horror romp Bad Hair that will include some form of limited theatrical release prior to the movie heading to the Disney-owned digital platform.
Sundance stalwart Sony Pictures Classics also got on the scoreboard with three festival pickups: the documentary The Truffle Hunters ($1.5 million), I Carry You With Me (a border-crossing romance for which SPC teamed with Sony’s Stage 6 Films banner), and The Father (starring Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, it was acquired before Sundance kicked off earlier this month). Big Sony, for its part, nabbed the international distribution for Zola — director Janicza Bravo’s uproarious, Spring Breakers–esque movie extrapolation of a notorious 2015 tweetstorm involving strippers, alleged murder, and unrepentant “hoeism.”
And although Netflix quietly acquired three films screening in competition this year, the streaming giant made a much bigger production of premiering ten films at the festival, its imprimatur serving as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval: the “relatively revealing” Taylor Swift doc Miss Americana, director Dee Rees’s adaptation of the Joan Didion novel The Last Thing He Wanted, and the international documentary exposé Into the Deep among them.
Herewith, these are the Sundance titles you can expect to see in theaters and on streaming services in the coming months:
Mucho Mucho Amor (dir. Christina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch): price undisclosed.
The 40-Year-Old Version (dir. Radha Blank): as of this writing, the streamer was closing in on a deal for “mid- to high-seven figures.”
His House (dir. Remi Weekes): price undisclosed.
Bad Hair (dir. Justin Simien): $8 million.
Palm Springs (in conjunction with Neon, dir. Max Barbakow): $17,500,000.69.
Sony Pictures Classics
The Father (dir. Florian Zeller): price undisclosed.
The Truffle Hunters (dir. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw): $1.5 million.
I Carry You With Me (dir. Heidi Ewing): price undisclosed.
Uncle Frank (dir. Alan Ball): $12 million.
Herself (dir. Phyllida Lloyd): price undisclosed.
The Night House (dir. David Bruckner): $12 million.
Ironbark (in conjunction with Roadside Attractions, dir. Dominic Cooke): in “the mid-seven-figures range.”
Siempre, Luis (dir. John James): a “mid-seven-figures deal.”
Spree (dir. Eugene Kotlyarenko): $2 million.
The Fight (dir. Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres): a “low-seven-figure deal.”
Identifying Features (dir. Fernanda Valadez): price undisclosed.
Boys State (in conjunction with A24, dir. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss): $12 million.
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