This year’s COVID-19-edition Sundance Film Festival ran four days shorter than usual, screened nearly 40 fewer features than in 2020, and unfolded entirely online. Ahead of opening night, attendants and competitors wondered whether or not this version of North America’s preeminent showcase for indie cinema would retain its luster as a hot place — arguably the hottest place anywhere — to sell art-house movies. Those concerns seemed to melt away, however, when the film CODA triggered a bidding war just hours shy of its January 28 premiere, before selling to Apple TV+ for $25 million: a sum that obliterated Hulu’s $17,500,000.69 purchase of last year’s Palm Springs as the biggest sale in Sundance history.
Whereas the festival’s previous distribution-deal battle royales (for films like Hamlet 2 and Little Miss Sunshine) played out amid the ski chalets and swag suites and crowded shuttle buses of Park City, Utah, buzz for CODA was entirely virtual. After the movie dropped online last Thursday, Sundance badge holders simply switched internet browsers from the festival’s streaming portal to mingle — via digital avatars of themselves — within 3-D “party” environments on its New Frontiers platform. Or many jumped to Twitter to register their pleasure with the coming-of-age dramedy well in advance of its published critical hosannas and days before CODA’s clean sweep of the fest’s top awards on Wednesday:
“Sundance did a really good job working with sellers to make this a proper market,” says Eric Sloss, head of sales for Cinetic Media, which represented eight films at this year’s Sundance. “The way people are having conversations and interacting in the virtual world, on the New Frontier site, and the way rumors and information get around in that space — it really interestingly mimicked how a festival works with whispers at parties. I don’t know that we have a one-to-one replacement for buzz on the ground at a festival. But there’s certainly something bubbling up.”
The purchase of CODA is an interesting moment in the ongoing streaming wars, marking a hefty acquisition for Apple TV+, a platform that notably lacks a back catalog like many of its competitors and has relied heavily on new content (such as the lately successful series Ted Lasso) to satisfy its subscriber base (estimated to be as high as 40 million, which is less than half of Disney+’s 90,000-subscriber count at the end of 2020).
Of course CODA — based on the French film La Famille Bélier, about a Deaf family of fishermen whose only hearing daughter is grappling with her desire to pursue a singing career rather than aid in the family business — was hardly the only independently produced movie to find its praises sung by text, Slack or Tweet and, as a matter of direct consequence, be snapped up for distribution over the course of Sundance 2021’s truncated run. At the close of the festival’s seventh and final day Wednesday, a statistically robust 10 of its 70 feature-length entries had been acquired in deals of varying sizes.
While gigantic paydays were fewer and farther between — as I type, Netflix is nearing a $16 million deal for Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing — and major streamers such as Amazon Studios (which bought five titles for a combined $47 million in 2019) and Hulu were largely absent from the early dealmaking, a broad array of mostly smaller distributors bought early and often at this year’s online iteration of Hollywood on Ice, shelling out for narrative features (the Ed Helms-starring Together Together, the Nicolas Cage cowboy-samurai gore-fest Prisoners of Ghostland), documentaries (The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, Playing With Sharks) and even adult-skewing animation (Cryptozoo, Flee).
Herewith, a list of the movies beyond CODA that sold at this year’s Sundance:
Ailey (dir. Jamila Wignot): A documentary about the acclaimed dancer-choreographer Alvin Ailey. Price undisclosed.
Flee (dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen): Hybrid-animated doc following a child refugee’s journey from Afghanistan. “Roughly $1 million.”
A Glitch in the Matrix (dir. Rodney Ascher): A “sci-fi” documentary examining the increasingly widespread supposition we are all living in a simulation of reality a la The Matrix. Price undisclosed.
Cryptozoo (dir. Dash Shaw): Fantasmagorical, hand-drawn animation feature employing the voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera and Zoe Kazan. Price undisclosed.
Misha and the Wolves (dir. Sam Hobkinson): The documentary unpacks the story of a woman whose Holocaust memoir — of being accepted among a pack of wolves after escaping Nazis in Germany — sells millions of copies and becomes a worldwide sensation before being debunked as a total fraud. Price undisclosed.
Sony Pictures Classics
Jockey (dir. Clint Bentley): A sports drama starring Clifton Collins Jr. (Westworld, Capote) as an aging jockey looking to win one last title on what could be a championship horse. Price undisclosed.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (dir. Kristina Lindstrom and Kristian Petri): This World Documentary Competition entry follows former child star Bjorn Andresen, who was thrust into the world spotlight as a young teen portraying Tadzio in director Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Death in Venice. Price undisclosed.
Together Together (dir. Nikole Beckwith): Comedy-drama starring Ed Helms as a single forty-something who hires a twenty-something gestational surrogate (Patti Harrison) to carry the child he plans to raise alone. But over the course of her pregnancy nothing goes as planned. Price undisclosed.
Prisoners of Ghostland (dir. Sion Sono): This genre-splicing art-house action-adventure finds Nicolas Cage battling samurai, cowboys and mysterious, nuclear-waste addled “ghosts” in a bid for redemption. Price undisclosed.
National Geographic Documentary Films
Playing With Sharks (dir. Sally Aitken): As per its title, this underwater documentary chronicles the pioneering Australian shark afficionado Valerie Taylor. Price undisclosed.
More From This Series
- In Weirdo Night, the Avant-Garde Fights Dirty
- The Indie-Film Pandemic Is Upon Us
- Here Are Your 2021 Sundance Film Festival Award Winners