Sundance Deals: Netflix Tries to Crash the Party, But Is No Belle of the Ball Yet

Strong female performances, male friendships and popular writers have defined the festival this year

Netflix came to this year’s Sundance Film Festival as the digital spoiler, ready to spend more than traditional studios to lure the top indie movies away from theatrical distribution – but so far they haven’t spoiled a thing, as the big acquisitions in a healthy market have mainly gone to the usual distribution suspects.

Multiple dealmakers have told TheWrap that Netflix came to Sundance with a specific strategy to outbid the other studios for movies in an attempt to build a track record as a buyer of major festival titles. A longtime supporter of independent film, Netflix has been buying movies at Sundance since 2005, when it acquired the Duplass brothers’ road trip comedy “The Puffy Chair” for its Red Envelope label. A Netflix executive told TheWrap that with the streaming giant’s ability to offer foreign territories, their bids often came in higher than some of the domestic-only offers.

But this strategy does not appear to have worked, at least not yet. Insiders say Netflix bid more than $5 million for the opening night comedy “The Bronze,” yet the filmmakers sold instead to Relativity for $3 million, which included a guaranteed theatrical release (600+ screens) that offered more financial upside.

The other major acquisitions at the festival went to traditional distributors: “Dope” sold for $7 million to Open Road and Sony Worldwide Acquistions; “The Witch” sold to A24 and DirectTV ; “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” sold for $4.7 million to Fox Searchlight (not $12 million as erroneously reported elsewhere); Jack Black‘s “The D Train” sold to IFC for $3 million; “Grandma” sold to Sony Pictures Classics for $2 million.

One individual familiar with the negotiations told TheWrap that Netflix made an aggressive bid for “The Bronze” in an attempt to get around its ancillary deal with Relativity. It may cost Netflix less to buy the film itself than to pay for digital/streaming rights under its deal with Relativity.

Netflix prides itself on is its ability to provide quality content to global audiences, as the service is available around the world. Netflix insiders don’t dispute the notion that the company wants to own copyright and is determined to disrupt the way Hollywood traditionally does business and become the direct conduit between the consumer and the content. One Netflix executive disputed that the company’s strategy is to overpay, but its competitors insist it Netflix is willing to do so in order to establish itself in the movie world.

The company succeeded in keeping the TV community on its toes thanks to “House of Cards,” “Arrested Development” and the upcoming “Wet Hot American Summer” limited series, and indeed is known among the agencies as willing to pay top dollar and maximum creative freedom.

But that has not worked so far at Sundance this year. Buyers told TheWrap that with Netflix and other streaming bidders, there’s still too much uncertainty regarding how movies will perform on Netflix, which analyzes its own data to determine the public’s viewing habits and whether the ends will justify the spend.

Meanwhile studios are becoming more wary of Netflix and haven’t been as eager to work with them since the company announced itself as a competitor that aims to produce five movies of its own each year. Some of those will receive a theatrical release, such as the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” sequel.

On the flip side, talent has been very receptive towards working with Netflix. After all, it never hurts to follow David Fincher‘s lead. Adam Sandler has a four-picture deal with Netflix, which enlisted A-listers Chris Pine and Kristen Wiig for roles in “Wet Hot American Summer” on Wednesday.

While Netflix has no current plans to give Sandler’s recently announced “Ridiculous 6” a theatrical release, the company maintains the option to do so should the film warrant that treatment.

Regardless of its low profile in Park City this year, Netflix is eager to begin building a feature library and showing Hollywood what it can do with these indie movies. If Netflix succeeds in the movie arena, the entire paradigm will shift… but Hollywood veterans aren’t sure it has just yet — as evidenced by the deal Relativity made for “The Bronze.”

Comedies, Genre Movies Prove Popular
One noticeable trend was how fast the comedies sold this year. Fox Searchlight and Magnolia Pictures acquired “Mistress America” and “Results,” respectively, before Sundance started, and once it did, Relativity wasted no time pouncing on the festival’s opening night film “The Bronze.” IFC Films and Open Road Films weren’t far behind in acquiring “The D Train” and “Dope.”

Other comedies such as “Sleeping With Other People” and “Digging for Fire” will surely net major sales thanks to their enticing cast elements.

In addition to the $6.5 million it spent on “Mistress America,” Fox Searchlight reeled in Sundance sensation “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” for $4.7 million and a higher upside for the filmmakers. It also bought “Brooklyn,” an Irish immigration tale starring Saoirse Ronan that was the biggest sale at Sundance with $9 million.

Sony Classics also made very strategic buys, targeting specific audiences with “Grandma” and “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” both of which were purchased for around $2 million.

Meanwhile, a new distributor The Orchard made a statement buy with “The Overnight” for $4 million.

“Knock Knock” was predictably the first genre movie off the board, with Eli Roth‘s Lionsgate taking worldwide rights. Powered by Keanu Reeves, the home invasion thriller was the only movie in the midnight lineup that sold other than the Kevin Bacon thriller “Cop Car,” which Focus World pulled over on Wednesday morning. Corin Hardy’s directorial debut “The Hallow” is also expected to sell soon, as is Rodney Ascher‘s documentary “The Nightmare,” which earned rave reviews from the genre crowd.

Docs were as popular as ever, with “Going Clear” and The Hunting Ground” among the hottest tickets at Sundance thanks to their controversial subjects, Scientology and campus rape. Other standouts include “Cartel Land,” “Best of Enemies,” “Finders Keepers” and “3 1/2 Minutes.”

If there was a breakout in the NEXT section it was probably Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” a dramatic comedy about two transgender prostitutes searching for their pimp on Christmas Eve.

The agencies seemed particularly competitive with each other as well, with some sales prices initially inflated in the press… all part of the plan, no doubt.