Today marks the start of a 2017 Sundance Film Festival that many feel could be dominated by the streaming services that are reshaping the independent film ecosystem. The signs of brisk action are there already, even before the auctions start this weekend. Yesterday, Amazon paid a whopping sum in excess of $6 million for Long Strange Trip, the 4-hour documentary on The Grateful Dead by director Amir Bar-Lev and producer Martin Scorsese, before the film’s premiere. Amazon, squarely in the Oscar race for last year’s $10 million Sundance acquisition Manchester By The Sea, will shortly set a distributor for a limited theatrical window before it streams the movie on Amazon Prime, and cut it into 6-pieces for television.
In another 7-figure pre-buy deal, Netflix put up the bulk of the funds and teamed with Vertical Entertainment on a deal for Sundance-bound Berlin Syndrome, the Cate Shortland-directed psychological thriller, with the streaming service getting most rights beyond theatrical. There are films Netflix will buy just for its global streaming service, but being the secondary player on Sundance films is also a strategy (Netflix factored in a second deal today with Momentum on Fun Mom Dinner).
Even though buyers can scratch Wind River off their lists (TWC closed its deal last weekend, despite reports to the contrary, said sources on both sides), there are titles here that while not reaching the $17.5 million Birth of a Nation level can certainly hit the $10 million paid for Manchester By The Sea at last Sundance.
“Don’t be surprised if Amazon and Netflix pay over $10 million and walk away with several of the top titles here,” said one exec who has been buying films for years for a traditional distribution company. “We have to spend what we can justify in a film’s performance; Manchester By The Sea’s gross isn’t that large, but if it brings customers to Amazon Prime and leads to the sale of other Amazon products, or if a property helps Netflix’s valuation or keeps customers paying monthly fees? These are variables we don’t have that aren’t really disclosed, but it creates a reality that is tough to pace with.”
That obviously won’t keep perennial prestige distributors from competing, though there will be other new players who might bid up all the titles being repped by the major agencies led by WME Global, CAA, UTA Independent, ICM Partners and others (with many titles curiously being repped by as many as three agencies). It is never only about the money for these reps, many of whom helped assemble these films from the ground floor, fusing financing and elements to scripts. The agents say that the priority is always placing delicate films with the distributors that provide the best chance for recouping but also to find the widest possible audience. The emergence of the streamers provides a hedge against an old Sundance story, those films that emerged with a festival glow, never to be heard from again.
Other new players this year are expected to include former RADiUS co-chief Tom Quinn and Tim League’s Neon teamup, as well as Megan Ellison’s Annapurna, where incoming executives Mark Weinstock and Erik Lomas are ready to assert the company as a distributor, and there is the reconstituted Miramax to help replace fading prestige film buyers like Broad Green. But the upstarts that sellers talk about most include YouTube Red, Facebook, Hulu, and possibly Apple, all hungry for original content programming. Deals they make most likely will include hiring distributors for prestige-building theatrical plays. While many distribution companies won’t hire out to do theatrical releases that don’t go through their own pay TV output deals, Roadside Attractions proved clearly with the distribution and marketing job it did for Amazon on Manchester By The Sea that this model can be a very effective alternative to the old deals that were made here.
Sure, established players have all this to deal with. But there have been enough prestige film successes, from Amazon/Roadside’s Manchester to A24’s Moonlight, Bleecker Street’s Captain Fantastic and Eye in the Sky, TWC’s Lion, SPC’s Elle, and CBS Films’ Hell or High Water, and Fox Searchlight’s Jackie, to imagine that appetite will be high for discoveries that will begin in earnest with the weekend array of premieres.
The other bit of news here that I can offer is that Wind River will not be an acquisition title, dashing hopes. TWC and the film’s principals, who made a deal long ago that wasn’t signed, finally closed. Wind River is the drama that marks the directorial debut of Taylor Sheridan, who as a writer is proving himself to have the potential to be a second coming of Cormac McCarthy with scripts Sicario, its sequel Soldado, and Hell or High Water, which for most of the year was the top grossing prestige film of 2016. Wind River stars fest darling Elizabeth Olsen as a long female FBI agent sent to investigate a murder on a remote Indian Reservation in the dead of winter. She finds assistance from a man with a haunted past. That role is played by Jeremy Renner and Jon Bernthal also stars.
The final thing on the minds of buyers as they come to Sundance: Google searches. Last year, Fox Searchlight paid a record $17.5 million for world rights to The Birth of a Nation. The Oscars So White thing was cresting, and the boldness of the slave rebellion film made it a must have title. It all happened so fast (Netflix bid $20 million) that nobody even stopped to consider that Nate Parker had that legal episode in his past, where he was accused of rape while a student at Penn State. The episode was right there on Parker’s Wikipedia page, and when I spoke to him last year before Deadline revealed details that were clearly going to challenge the film’s Oscar chances, I recall he said that during the auction swirl, nobody asked.
They will check, and they will ask, this time, and these things might factor into deal making because the ensuing unprecedented scandal over a long ago incident for which Parker was acquitted, undermined his coming out party as an emerging writer/star/director/producer of the film. It upended a good film that came out of last Sundance with every expectation it would be an Oscar front runner. Buyers told me they won’t insist on morals clauses in these auctions, but they will wear out those Google search engines a bit.
Here are the titles buyers have told me they are most eager to see to bolster their film slates.
BEATRIZ AT DINNER – Director: Miguel Arteta. Cast: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow. An immigrant from a poor town in Mexico, has drawn on her innate kindness to build a career as a health practitioner. Doug Strutt is a cutthroat, self-satisfied billionaire. When these two opposites meet at a dinner party, their worlds collide and neither will be the same. Could the collision of immigration and billionaires be timelier?
1st Screening – January 23rd 9:30PM, Eccles Theatre
THE BIG SICK – Director: Michael Showalter. Cast: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher. Pakistan-born comedian Kumail and grad student Emily fall in love, but struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail must navigate the crisis with her parents and the emotional tug-of-war between his family and his heart. Its produced by Judd Apatow, who has a track record for finding breakout stuff.
1st Screening – January 20th 6:15PM Eccles
MUDBOUND – Director: Dee Rees. Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund, Jonathan Banks. In the post– World War II South, two families are pitted against a barbaric social hierarchy and an unrelenting landscape as they simultaneously fight the battle at home and the battle abroad. This epic pioneer story is about friendship, heritage and the unending struggle for and against the land. Rees announced herself here as a directing talent with 2011’s Pariah, and expectations are this could be the sleeper acquisition title.
1st Screening – January 21st 6:15PM, Eccles
REBEL IN THE RYE – Director: Danny Strong. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, Hope Davis, Victor Garber. Top screenwriter Strong makes his feature directing debut delving into the life and mind of reclusive author J.D. Salinger as he goes from the bloody front lines of World War II to early rejection as a writer and the PTSD-fueled writer’s block that led to his iconic novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Buyers have been sparked since seeing the promo.
1st Screening – January 24th 9:30PM, Eccles Theatre
LANDLINE – Director: Gillian Robespierre. Cast: Jenny Slate, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock. Two sisters come of age in ’90s New York when they discover their dad’s affair—and it turns out he’s not the only cheater in the family.
1st Screening – January 20th 3:30PM, Eccles Theatre
ROXANNE ROXANNE – Director: Michael Larnell. Cast: Chanté Adams, Mahershala Ali, Nia Long, Elvis Nolasco, Kevin Phillips, Shenell Edmonds. Set in the world of battle emcees in 80s New York, a 14 year old girl from the Queensbridge projects has the chance to help her family by becoming a hip hop legend. Producers were behind Fruitvale Station and Dope.
1st Screening – January 22nd 3:00PM, Library Center Theatre
THE POLKA KING – Director: Maya Forbes & Wally Wolodarsky. Cast: Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, Jacki Weaver, J.B. Smoove. Based on the remarkable true story of the world’s only known Polka Ponzi scheme, Jan Lewan is a polish immigrant who believed in the American Dream, but that comes with big mistakes as he attempts to become the King of Pennsylvania Polka.
1st Screening – January 22nd 9:45PM, Eccles Theatre
THE YELLOW BIRDS – Director: Alexandre Moors. Cast: Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Patric, Toni Collette, Jennifer Aniston. Two young men enlist in the army and are deployed to fight in the Gulf War. After an unthinkable tragedy, the surviving soldier struggles to balance his promise of silence with the truth and a mourning mother’s search for peace. Moors directed Blue Caprice.
1st Screening – January 21st 3:00PM, Eccles Theatre
FUN MOM DINNER – Director: Alethea Jones. Cast: Katie Aselton, Toni Collette, Bridget Everett, Molly Shannon, Adam Scott, Adam Levine. Four women, whose kids attend the same preschool class, get together for a “fun mom dinner.” When the night takes an unexpected turn, these unlikely new friends realize they have more in common than just marriage and motherhood. Together, they reclaim a piece of the women they used to be.
1st Screening – January 27th 3:30PM, Eccles Theatre
NEWNESS – Director: Drake Doremus. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Laia Costa, Danny Huston. LA tale of two millennials navigating a social media driven hookup culture, who begin a relationship that pushes both emotional and physical boundaries.
1st Screening – January 22nd 11:30 pm Holiday Village Cinema 1 (private)
THOROUGHBRED – Director: Cory Finley. Cast: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift, Kaili Vernoff. Two teenage girls in suburban Connecticut rekindle their unlikely friendship after years of growing apart. In the process, they learn that neither is what she seems to be—and that a murder might solve both of their problems.
1st Screening – January 21st Noon, Library Center Theatre
NOVITIATE – Director: Maggie Betts. Cast: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Morgan Saylor. , Young woman training to become a nun struggles with faith and sexuality in early 1960s Vatican II era changing church.
1st Screening – January 20th Noon, Eccles Theatre
PATTI CAKE$ – Director: Geremy Jasper. Cast: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett, Siddharth Dhananjay, Mamoudou Athie, Cathy Moriarty. Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Killa P, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, is an aspiring rapper fighting through a world of Jersey strip malls and strip clubs in quest of stardom.
1st Screening – January 23rd 12:15PM, Eccles Theatre