As the 2016 Sundance Film Festival gets underway today, there are two ways to try and predict how the acquisitions part of the showcase will go. You can think it’s going to be a bore, based on the skeptical media reports that single out the failure of Dope and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl to live up to their purchase prices, and question whether Harvey Weinstein will take a backseat after years of setting the tone for sales here, based on those headlines about 2015’s tumultuous company reboot. You can add a paucity of big star titles and conclude buyers will be picky and selective and this could be closer to a replay of Toronto than last year’s deal-making bonanza in Park City.
Or, you can find encouragement in the enthusiasm of sellers who expect a week’s worth of all-night bargaining sessions, starting this weekend.
“There is a sh*tload of titles for sale, and a f*ckton of new buyers looking to buy them,” said one major deal-maker. “Some of the deals might take a while to close, and the prices might not set records. But there is this whole crop of new buyers that means we don’t need Harvey Weinstein to drive the market. There has never been more opportunities for layering of different kinds of deals, from streaming services to multi-platform and traditional theatrical plays.”
Factor in the usual caveat that Sundance films are quirkier than mainstream, and limited star power, and that fuels a consensus there will be lots of deals but probably not lots of big ones. Weinstein and David Glasser might well feel they have something to prove after TWC re-calibrated. And there is an intriguing X Factor: several of the newer distributors had out-sized successes and will be eager to continue their momentum.
So Dope and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl didn’t live up to festival hype for reasons that had more to do with marketing and confusing titles than quality. But at Bleecker Street, Andrew Karpen comes into the festival having acquired and released a true 2015 Sundance sleeper in I’ll See You In My Dreams (a small MG film that grossed $7.4 million), and becoming the first company since maybe DreamWorks to notch a major category Oscar nomination—Bryan Cranston in Trumbo—in its first year.
Broad Green is another one. The company made a P&A deal on the 2015 Sundance acquisition A Walk In The Woods and watched it become the highest grossing hit of last year’s crop with a $29 million gross. While that company is moving aggressively into homegrown production, expect them to want more.
Open Road, which released Dope, has the momentum of six Oscar nominations including Best Picture for Spotlight, a film it jumped on when DreamWorks let it go. That film, still building gross in theaters after opening in November, has been a triumph for the indie distributor.
A24 also has reasons to be ebullient, what with seven nominations including Best Picture for Room, the Best Documentary nom for the Amy Winehouse docu Amy, and the success of Ex Machina.
These companies are now considered part of the establishment, along with TWC, Fox Searchlight (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl didn’t work, but FS’s other 2015 Sundance acquisition of Brooklyn garnered three Oscar noms including Best Picture), Sony Pictures Classics, Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate, and CBS Films. Add in wild cards like Paramount Pictures (which has used big festival buys to cherry pick films to bolster its slate), STX Entertainment (which made the splashiest Toronto deal with the first person POV manic thriller Hardcore Henry), and the streaming services that continue to shake up the status quo. If the films are commercial or excellent enough to warrant P&A spends, there will be many deals here.
Netflix already made a splashy prebuy, paying $7 million for SVOD rights for the Paul Rudd pic The Fundamentals of Caring, and a similar deal for the Ellen Page-starrer Tallulah. Amazon also bought before the festival even began, and there are rumors that if Apple, Verizon and AT&T don’t start buying films here, they’ll be doing it at another festival, soon.
Netflix continues to be the wild card that most vexes the established distributors, including those SVOD rights deals that means a distributor could get Fundamentals and Tallulah for a relative pittance. Several distribution execs told me they wouldn’t take the films for free because there just isn’t enough upside to justify the time required to give a specialty release a chance to shine in the marketplace. You can’t get far into a conversation with a prestige theatrical distribution exec before they tell you that had Beasts of No Nation gone the traditional theater route, it would have been taken more seriously in the awards race and Idris Elba would have a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his towering performance as an African warlord leader of child soldiers.
But they also acknowledge that the streaming players make offers that are hard to turn down, if a financier is eager to eliminate downside risk. Netflix has the cash to make deals that anticipate what a movie might have made if released traditionally, includes projected overages. Financiers are more than made whole by the time the deal closes. And while the lack of meaningful theater plays is the same kind of thing that stunted the growth of multi-platform deals, Netflix made a strong case when Ted Sarandos told Deadline that Beasts was watched by 3 million of its U.S. subscribers its first two weeks, and that the topped every country Netflix streams in. Who knows if moviegoers would have shown up for the brutal subject matter in that film?
As for specific titles, both buyers and sellers said that a lot of the sexier titles are spoken for, like John Carney’s Sing Street that was acquired last year by The Weinstein Company. There are two provocative films about gun violence, and a preponderance of dramas and comedies about rebellious protagonists who return home to confront past demons. Given the lack of big star titles, execs will be on the watch to try and identify directing talent, make discoveries and hopefully continue to make movies with them.
The track record of festival directors on the biggest films in Hollywood is remarkable. Among them: Creed and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, who broke in at Sundance with Fruitvale Station; Kings of Summer helmer Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who is directing Kong: Skull Island, Colin Trevorrow, who emerged from Safety Not Guaranteed to direct Jurassic World and Star Wars Episode IX; Duncan Jones, who went from Moon to Warcraft. Last but not least is Jon Watts, who emerged from last Sundance to be chosen as the director of Sony’s massive Spider-Man reboot, even though his Sundance film Cop Car only grossed a shade over $100,000.