The 2015 Sundance Film Festival gets underway tonight, and signs are prevalent that it might well be the biggest sellers’ market for marketing-challenged prestige fare that we’ve seen in a decade or longer. There is too much favoring the sellers here to think about it any other way, particularly after four deals were made even before the first premiere occurred.
There is a host of films that are good-on-paper, with commercial elements and filmmakers poised for breakthroughs. All of the upstart distributors who made statement deals at Toronto last fall are here, along with more upstart buyers. The usual suspects all have slots to fill and are buoyed by a stronger than usual showing of indie fare during awards season. And then there is the unknown variable: aggressiveness of streaming services Netflix and Amazon Studios — which just hired respected indie producer Ted Hope. They are telling sellers they will bid in hybrid deals that comprise some theatrical penetration to go with streaming.
Indication of appetite is evident in that four films sold before their Park City premieres. Fox Searchlight made a bold and sight-unseen acquisition of Mistress America, which Noah Baumbach wrote with Greta Gerwig; Lionsgate acquired the Jared Hess-directed comedy Don Verdean, and Magnolia acquired the comedy Results. A24 today bought U.S. on James Ponsoldt’s The End Of The Tour. Yowza. If these other movies show up on the screen, there should be a lot of deals.
“We all hope it will be a sellers’ market and if it is, part of that will be a lot more new faces and companies with new regimes looking to fill pipelines,” said UTA’s Rena Ronson. “Besides the buyers we’ve always relied on, you’ve got the digital players looking for product, who are becoming players. Netflix has a bandwidth that goes overseas and can allow them to buy world rights. Everybody has their own formula and it becomes an exercise in understanding what everyone’s deal structures and strengths are to make a deal that factors in upside and what makes creative sense for a film.”
To WME Global’s Graham Taylor, the influx of buyers and momentum from other recent festivals lends he and his peers to view the whole market differently. “You don’t think of it as buyer or seller markets, as much as being part of a renaissance where content rules,” Taylor said. “It becomes about brokering and helping to curate and find the right partner for the right films. What’s different is distribution was once a commodity, and now it is content that is king.”
A sellers’ market brings its own challenges. Multiple bidders improve leverage and drive up prices, but if the biggest check is the sole determiner, you aren’t doing a good job. The fragile indie ecosystem was destroyed several years ago by an influx of overpaying studio-funded shingles that disappeared during the economic crash of 2008.
To CAA’s Micah Green and Roeg Sutherland — who routinely put together the funding for much bigger and more commercial movie packages, some of which will be unveiled in Berlin — the priority here is the opportunity to push the creative envelope and break new voices. That requires the all-night bargaining sessions that end not only with a deal to be papered at dawn, but an entire strategized marketing and release plan.
There are some years when the Sundance programmers seem fixated on a certain theme, and most of the time it’s dark and depressing. Not this year. Said ICM Partners’ Jessica Lacy: “We’ve been able to come in with a slate that is varied, with films that are right for wide release and others that might work on digital platform. We are seeing Netflix being very aggressive with worldwide offers, which is new. They’re not looking for the streaming rights, they want the world on some of these films which makes for an interesting new option on some of these films. It’s a world we’re all sorting out, but it’s great to have them aggressive.”
Buyers tell me that they will try to not let the thin air and pack of competitors get them in situations where they overpay, which doesn’t help anybody in the long run. It places undue performance pressure on films that usually have ceilings on how well they will perform.
“We’re coming in with appetite to find solid projects, and it looks like there are some great ones that have us excited,” said Weinstein Company COO David Glasser. When Harvey Weinstein brings his checkbook — he brought Fruitvale Station two years ago but didn’t make a big buy last time — the market is usually a healthy one.
Some of these films might go for mid-seven figures, but consider that the high bar for gross for a 2014 Sundance film is Whiplash, the big festival award winner that so far has grossed just north of $6 million for Sony Pictures Classics. Next best performer was The Skeleton Twins, the offbeat comedy that starred SNL alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, and was originally contemplated as a day-and-date release by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. It was a surprise box office hit, but the movie went in a $3.5 million deal for world rights, and Whiplash went for $2.5 million for North America, Germany and Australia. Both of these were reasonable deals that left room for profit in success, but just enough to justify all the hands-on work that went into coaxing out those numbers.
On the buyers’ side, it’s about coming in with a strong plan that will do just enough to please financiers eager to recoup, but mostly to convince filmmakers their distribution company gives the film the best chance to succeed.
“People are coming in needing movies and there are more of them,” said Focus Features acquisitions president Lia Buman. “There are players in a lot of different brackets covering wide release, platform, and combinations of digital, theatrical, and streaming. So if you have a movie with high commercial prospects, you have to figure if you like it, someone else will, too. We go in looking to fall in love, and if we do, we’ll probably go hard, not because we need the movie for the slate, but because we love the picture.”
There is always the risk of contracting festival fever, falling hard, overpaying and wondering, how the hell did that happen.
“You need to make sure that you haven’t contracted festival fever and the way I do that is, after I walk out of the theater, if I feel the movie going through me with my body tingling like a shot of electricity, then you know you’ve fallen in love,” Buman said. ‘The great thing is these movies are not supposed to talk to everybody the same way, that’s not what Sundance is about. And when you go in and negotiate, you have to love the movie enough to know what the right deal is, one that doesn’t put too much pressure on it.” Buman recalled feeling that jolt on films that included Safety Not Guaranteed and Insidious, both of which she acquired at FilmDistrict, and Can A Song Save Your Life, which went to TWC.
The buyers are ready to fall in love, but the appetite by organizers for disruptive non-mainstream fare makes Sundance an unpredictable mistress. Take for instance the hot title mentioned to me the most, Sleeping With Other People. It has a provocative premise and a good title, and a cast that includes Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Adam Scott and Natasha Lyonne. It is written and directed by Leslye Headland, Harvey Weinstein’s former assistant who returns to Sundance after Bachelorette. But that earlier movie — which had a killer cast — was equally hyped before its premiere as a potential Bridesmaids-like comedy. The characters were so unlikeable that it found its wheelhouse through a multi-platform release by Radius. Buyers hope this will be more of a straight theatrical play, with characters likeable enough to build a P&A campaign around. It’s about a womanizer who forms a platonic relationship with a serial cheater, one that reforms them while creating a mutual attraction.
If buyers don’t fall in love here, there won’t be a long wait for their next chance. Sellers and buyers will almost immediately board plane and head for Germany for the Berlin film market. That’s where TWC bought The Imitation Game, the Best Picture Oscar nominee that is poised to pass The Grand Budapest Hotel and become the year’s highest-grossing indie.