Rarely have buyers and sellers come into the Sundance Film Festival with as many questions about the fast-changing prestige business as this year. As they arrive in Park City today, no one was willing to predict if this would be a festival teeming with deals, or one where all but a few films take weeks to sell.
The positives: prestige films from Fox Searchlight’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to The Shape of Water, NEON/30West’s I, Tonya, A24’s The Disaster Artist, Lady Bird and The Florida Project, Sony Pictures Classics’ Call Me By Your Name and others have been performing strongly at the box office. Last year’s hot Sundance titles The Big Sick (Amazon Studios) and Wind River (The Weinstein Company) all showed there is a theatrical market for well-told adult stories.
On the other hand, the business, and the continuing emergence of streaming services, is clearly in flux. Disney’s pending acquisition of Fox has some worried about the future of the stalwart distributor Fox Searchlight and its appetite coming into Sundance (heads Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula say they arrive with slots to fill and intend to play the game same as they always do). The scandalous demise of former king of the hill Harvey Weinstein has cast a long shadow: TWC has at least temporarily disappeared as a buyer, and two Toronto deals — The Orchard’s purchase of Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me 2 to YouTube Red acquisition — were rescinded by scandal. It leaves those two companies with money to spend, but it could leave buyers wary and seeking some scandal protection. Nobody forgets what happened to the record Sundance deal, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a film whose Oscar hopes were dashed by controversy over a rape charge from when Parker (acquitted) and his co-story writer were Penn State wrestlers. There is also the demise of Broad Green, once an aggressive buyer, to ponder.
All that said, how many times have we come here with pessimism, only to watch giant deals for films like the $10 million Netflix paid for Mudbound last year, or the whopping price Paramount paid for the Chris Rock-directed Top Five several Toronto fests ago? Last Sundance there was an explosion of big deals, from the eight-figures Amazon paid for Big Sick to the Searchlight-won auction for PattiCake$. Sobering the proceedings is a look back to last Sundance, where The Big Sick went on to gross nearly $40 million last year, and Wind River right behind it at $34 million to be the top-grossing prestige films of 2017, with both coming out of this festival. But behind those, only Beatriz At Dinner‘s $7.1 million and Hero‘s $4.1 million were box office bright spots. Patti Cake$ — which buyers loved and fought over after its premiere last year — could not find traction with moviegoers, and grossed just $80,000.
Is there another Big Sick, the comedy whose whopping first-weekend bidding battle whetted the appetite for a multitude of other deals last Sundance? Some said the best candidate was Life Itself, the film written and directed by This Is Us series creator Dan Fogelman. But that film closed a whopping $10 million deal last month by Amazon Studios, a statement buy for that company after the scandalous exit of Roy Price, and the first major buy under the leadership of Jason Ropell. The film won’t be launched until a fall festival, right into awards season later this year. Will Amazon Studios and Netflix carry the day as they did last year, when Netflix bought multiple narrative and documentary films, most significantly its eight-figure deal for the Dee Rees-directed Mudbound? Netflix has a slate to fill, but whispers are they are going to try very hard not to bid up these movies this time around. Just this morning is a report is a Reuters report saying that Amazon will veer away from the indie film space. Doesn’t make sense to me, as their plan all along has been to evolve toward bigger pictures. But their brain trust is filled with production and distribution execs who are most accomplished in the tastemaker film space. Trying to get clarity on all this, but if Amazon isn’t competing for titles here, it could mean a long, slow Sundance market.
The truth is, you never know which movies will hit a buyer in the gut while they discover something special along with a rousing audience in a dark room. And if more than one distributor feels the same, money will be spent. But when buyers say they will be very disciplined this time, I believe them.
Here is a list of titles — many with strong casts — with the highest wannasee, according to buyers and sellers I’ve spoken to. We will find out starting today which are heroes and which turn out to be zeroes.
American Animals – Director: Bart Layton. Cast: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier. The partly true story of four young men who mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious art heists in U.S. history. Appetites were whetted with promo footage shown last Cannes, but this is the first time buyers will be seeing the finished film. US Dramatic Competition. First Screening –Friday, January 19, 3:30 PM – Eccles Theater
Burden – Director: Andrew Heckler. Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson, Usher Raymond. After opening a KKK shop, Klansman Michael Burden falls in love with a single mom who forces him to confront his senseless hatred. He is sheltered by an African American preacher after finding himself on the outs with the KKK. Fact-based story just scored a major book deal, with plans to publish when the movie gets released and buyers got to see a promo. US Dramatic Competition. First Screening – Sunday, Jan 21st 6:15 PM – Library
The Catcher Was a Spy – Director: Ben Lewin. Cast: Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti. Moe Berg was a professional baseball player, an Ivy League graduate, and an attorney who spoke nine languages. And, oh, yeah, he was a top-secret spy for the OSS who helped the U.S. win the race against Germany to build the atomic bomb during WWII. Premieres. First Screening – 8:30 PM – MARC
Colette – Director: Wash Westmoreland. Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough, Elinor Tomlinson, Aiysha Hart. This was the last film Westmoreland wrote with late partner Richard Glatzer, the team behind Still Alice, the film that won Julianne Moore an Oscar. A young country woman marries a famous literary entrepreneur in turn-of-the-century Paris: At her husband’s request, Colette pens a series of bestselling novels published under his name. Premieres. First Screening – Saturday, Jan 20th 6:30 PM – Eccles
Damsel – Director: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner. Cast: Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, Robert Forster, Nathan Zellner, Joe Billingiere. Affluent pioneer Samuel Alabaster ventures across the American Frontier to marry the love of his life, Penelope. As Samuel, a drunkard named Parson Henry and a miniature horse called Butterscotch traverse the Wild West, their once-simple journey grows treacherous, blurring the lines between hero, villain and damsel. Premieres. First Screening – 3:30 PM – Eccles
I Think We’re Alone Now – Director: Reed Morano. Cast: Peter Dinklage, Elle Fanning. The apocalypse proves a blessing in disguise for one lucky recluse – until a second survivor arrives with the threat of companionship. The director won the Emmy for her episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. US Dramatic Competition. First Screening – Sunday, Jan 21st 12:15 PM – Eccles (Public)
2nd Screening – Monday, Jan 22nd 9:00 AM – Park Ave (P & I)
Juliet, Naked – Director: Jesse Peretz. Cast: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd. Annie is the long-suffering girlfriend of Duncan, an obsessive fan of obscure rocker Tucker Crowe. When the acoustic demo of Tucker’s celebrated record from 25 years ago surfaces, its release leads to an encounter with the elusive rocker himself. Judd Apatow produced this, and he’s back after last year’s fest standout The Big Sick. Premieres. First Screening – Friday, Jan 19th 6:45 PM – Eccles
A Kid Like Jake – Director: Silas Howard. Cast: Claire Danes, Jim Parsons, Octavia Spencer, Priyanka Chopra, Ann Dowd, Amy Landecker. As married couple Alex and Greg navigate their roles as parents to a young son who prefers Cinderella to G.I. Joe, a rift grows between them, one that forces them to confront their own concerns about what’s best for their child, and each other. Premieres. First Screening – Saturday, Jan 20th 9:00 PM – Holiday 2 (P & I)
The Kindergarten Teacher – Director: Sara Colangelo. Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Parker Sevak, Rosa Salazar, Anna Barynishikov, Michael Chernus, Gael Garcia Bernal. Lisa Spinelli is a Staten Island teacher who is unusually devoted to her students. When she discovers one of her five-year-olds is a prodigy, she becomes fascinated with the boy, ultimately risking her family and freedom to nurture his talent. US Dramatic Competition. First Screening – Friday, Jan 19th 3:00 PM – Library
Leave No Trace – Director: Debra Granik. Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Korber, Dale Dickey. A father and daughter live a perfect but mysterious existence in Forest Park, a beautiful nature reserve near Portland, Oregon, rarely making contact with the world. A small mistake tips them off to authorities sending them on an increasingly erratic journey in search of a place to call their own. Premieres. First Screening – 9:30 PM – Eccles
Blindspotting – Director: Carlos Lopez Estrada. Cast: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar, Jasmine Cephas Jones. Two Bay Area residents and long-time friends deal with racial bias in rapidly gentrifying Oakland. US Dramatic Competition. First Screening – Thursday, Jan 18th 5:30 PM – Eccles
Monster – Director: Anthony Mandler. Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Rakim Mayers, Jennifer Ehle, Tim Blake Nelson. Monster is what the prosecutor calls 17 year old honors student and aspiring filmmaker Steve Harmon. Charged with felony murder for a crime he says he did not commit, the film follows his dramatic journey through a complex legal battle that could leave him spending the rest of his life in prison. Mandler is making his feature debut after emerging as a hot music video director. US Dramatic Competition. First Screening – Monday, Jan 22nd 3:30 PM – Eccles
Ophelia – Director: Claire McCarthy. Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George MacKay, Tom Felton, Devon Terrell. Hamlet, told as a female empowerment tale. Ophelia comes of age as lady-in-waiting for Queen Gertrude, and her singular spirit captures Hamlet’s affections. As lust and betrayal threaten the kingdom, Ophelia finds herself trapped between true love and controlling her own destiny. Buyers saw promo at Toronto. Premieres. First Screening – Monday, Jan 22nd 6:30 PM – Eccles
Monsters and Men – Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green. Cast: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chanté Adams, Nicole Beharie, Rob Morgan. Interwoven narrative explores the aftermath of a police killing of a black man. Story is told through the eyes of the bystander who filmed the act, an African-American police officer and a high-school baseball phenom inspired to take a stand. US Dramatic Competition. First Screening – Friday, Jan 19th 12:15 PM – Eccles
Piercing – Director: Nicolas Pesce. Cast: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa, Marin Ireland, Maria Dizzia, Wendell Pierce. In this twisted love story, a man seeks out an unsuspecting stranger to help him purge the dark torments of his past. His plan goes awry when he encounters a woman with plans of her own. Midnight. First Screening – Saturday, Jan 20th 11:59 PM – PC Library
Puzzle – Director: Marc Turtletaub. Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams, Liv Hewson. Taken for granted as a suburban mother, Agnes discovers a passion for solving jigsaw puzzles which unexpectedly draws her into a new world – where her life unfolds in ways she could never have imagined. Premieres. First Screening – 6:30 PM – Eccles
The Tale – Director: Jennifer Fox. Cast: Laura Dern, Isabel Nelisse, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burstyn, Common. An investigation into one woman’s memory — based on the filmmaker’s own story — as she’s forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. US Dramatic Competition. First Screening – Saturday, Jan 20th 12:15 PM – Eccles
White Fang – Director: Alexandre Espigares. Cast: Rashida Jones, Nick Offerman, Eddie Spears, Paul Giamatti. I’ve seen footage from this one, and it’s ravishing as Little Miss Sunshine producer Big Beach moves into animation. An updated re-imagining of Jack London’s classic novel based on the adventures of White Fang, whose viewpoint matches the book in that it can be captured in the animated film treatment. Kids Section. First Screening – Sunday, January 21, 11:30 AM – Prospector
Yardie – Director: Idris Elba. Cast: Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Stephen Graham, Fraser James, Sheldon Shepherd, Everaldo Cleary, For his feature directorial debut, Elba chose an adaptation of the Victor Headley cult novel about a youth who witnesses his idealistic brother’s assassination in Jamaica. Taken in by a crime lord, the young man seems on a path toward a crime career, but he’s torn between honoring his brother’s wish for peace, and the desire to avenge his murder. I’ve seen the film and it is a very strong effort with terrific music, and leads Ameen and Jackson both have breakout potential with Graham (Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) playing the most memorable white rastafarian drug lord since Gary Oldman’s turn in True Romance. World Cinema Dramatic Competition. First Screening – Saturday, Jan 20th 9:30 PM – Ray
Arizona – Director: Jonathan Watson. Cast: Danny McBride, Rosemarie DeWitt, Luke Wilson, Lolli Sorenson, Elizabeth Gillies, Kaitlin Olson. Darkly comedic tale set during the 2009 housing crisis follows Cassie Fowler, a single mom and struggling realtor whose life goes off the rails when she witnesses a murder. Midnight. First Screening – Saturday, Jan 20th 11:45 PM – Egyptian
Assassination Nation – Director: Sam Levinson. Cast: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Bill Skarsgard, Bella Thorne. Billed as a true story about how the quiet, all-American town of Salem, absolutely lost its mind. Midnight. First Screening – 11:59 PM – PC Library
Blaze – Director: Ethan Hawke. Cast: Benjamin Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton. Based on the life of Blaze Foley, the unsung songwriting legend of the Texas Outlaw Music movement. US Dramatic Competition. First Screening – Saturday, Jan 21st 3:00 PM – PC Library
The Happy Prince – Director: Rupert Everett. Cast: Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Edwin Thomas. The last days of Oscar Wilde—and the ghosts haunting them—are brought to vivid life. Wilde lives in exile, surviving on the flamboyant irony and brilliant wit that defined him as the transience of lust is laid bare and the true riches of love are revealed. Premieres. First Screening – Sunday, Jan 21st 9:30 PM – Eccles
Our New President – Director: Maxim Pozdorovkin. I’ve included this one just for the potential of the premise. The story of Donald Trump’s election, told entirely through Russian propaganda, is a satirical portrait of Russian media that reveals an empire of fake news and the tactics of modern-day information warfare.