EXCLUSIVE: Deadline broke news last Wednesday that Netflix had won a heated auction for the Sundance documentary Knock Down the House, but it wasn’t immediately clear how much the picture sold for. I can reveal that Netflix paid $10 million for worldwide rights to a film that yesterday received Sundance’s coveted Festival Favorite Award.
By my count, that makes Knock Down the House the biggest documentary sale ever brokered at a film festival, this for the Rachel Lears-directed film that followed the campaigns of congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and three other candidates who ran against incumbents in the elections last fall, shaking up the status quo and bringing fresh blood into Congress.
Long marginalized in comparisons to narrative films, documentaries have entered an unprecedented golden age, one that is only going to get better, as studio-backed subscription streaming services will seek out these films in the next year or two as they voraciously fill a need for product.
Knock Down the House was one of several documentaries that went for millions at Sundance: Hulu’s $2 million buy of The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary, Netflix’s near $3 million deal for American Factory, NatGeo’s $3 million deal for the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced Audience Award winner Sea of Shadows, Sony Pictures Classics acquired the David Crosby docu Remember My Name, and Where Is My Roy Cohn, and Showtime bought the series Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics And Men.
The most I can recall a festival documentary selling for was the $5 million paid for the Russian doping docu Icarus, which was bought by Netflix at Sundance in 2017 and went on to win the Best Documentary Oscar. Last year saw a Sundance bumper crop: the Mister Rogers docu Won’t You Be My Neighbor? grossed a whopping $22 million for Focus; RBG, the docu on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, grossed $14 million for Magnolia; and Three Identical Strangers, acquired by NEON and CNN, grossed $12 million. Narrative films were hit and miss last year with some pricey misfires, but documentaries turned out to be the best buys of that festival.
This year, Knock Down the House fit the template of a triumphant Sundance slate that celebrated diversity and featured a high number of films directed by women. It was a festival that got off to a flying start with a $13 million Amazon deal for the Mindy Kaling-scripted, Nisha Ganatra-directed Late Night, a record for a U.S.-only rights deal.
Sources said that nearly every distributor chased deal broker Cinetic Media for Knock Down the House including NEON, Focus, Hulu and Amazon. Some traditional theatrical distributors said that price tag would be tough to meet because, given the P&A required, the film would have to gross $75 million worldwide to be profitable.
Amazon, meanwhile, also didn’t seem a good fit because the film’s galvanizing star, Ocasio-Cortez – a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the youngest elected member of the U.S. Congress at age 29 — has been critical of the sweetheart deal Amazon made to build headquarters in New York, near her 14th District.
The other progressive challengers whose campaigns are studied in Knock Down the House are Cori Bush, Amy Vilela and Paula Jean Swearengin. Bush was a former nurse from St. Louis who was moved to run after becoming involved in protests of the murder of Michael Brown, and she challenged Rep. Lacy Clay, an old-school black Southern Democrat whose father held the office before him. Vilela was a chief financial officer in Nevada who took on Steven Horsford, a pol heavily backed by PAC-money interests. Vilela was moved to run after the death of her daughter, who passed away soon after a hospital refused to treat her when she couldn’t provide proof of insurance. Swearengin is a coal miner’s daughter who ran because she loathed seeing her community blighted by health problems and poverty created by the dependence on the coal industry in West Virginia.
Netflix has made docus a staple since it started as a DVD-by-mail company nearly 20 years ago, and its data shows that 75% of its subscribers watch at least one documentary a year.
Why the sudden surge? Alex Gibney, in Sundance to introduce his HBO docu on the rise and fall of Theranos’ inventor Elizabeth Holmes The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley, suggested part of it might be an appetite built by living in world where a reality show host finds himself President of the United States, and where there is a rabid appetite for podcasts and other non-fictional content.
“Documentaries were considered…I won’t even say spinach because I like spinach…lima beans,” Gibney told Deadline. “They’re good for you but they may not taste that good. But now, the docs got really better, and reality TV helped educate people that stories with real people could be entertaining. We live in such a crazy world and there are now real storytellers in documentaries and it’s just hard to match real life. I mean, who would be better at playing Julian Assange than Julian Assange?”
Robin Blotnick co-wrote Knock Down the House with Lears and they produced the docu with Sarah Olson.