The 2016 Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday, marked the moment that streaming services came of age as buyers on the festival circuit, like rich frat boys hitting the bars in Tijuana, with aggressive ‘tudes and open wallets.
Before the official launch of Sundance, Netflix preemptively purchased festival entries “Fundamentals of Caring” (pictured, below), starring Paul Rudd, and “Tallulah,” starring Ellen Page, for $7 million and $5 million, respectively, along with the Iranian horror movie “Under the Shadow.” As the fest unfolded, it also picked up rights to “Brahman Naman,” “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” and “Audrie & Daisy.”
Amazon also beat other buyers out of the gate, picking up director Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation “Love and Friendship” (pictured, top), starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, and paying $2 million to buy director Joshua Marston’s “Complete Unknown,” starring Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon, ahead of their Sundance premieres. Roadside Attractions has partnered with Amazon to release “Love and Friendship” theatrically ahead of its streaming debut.
Later, Amazon paid $10 million for writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” starring Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck. It also collared the U.S. theatrical and streaming rights to the comedy “Wiener-Dog” by writer/director Todd Solonz’s (“Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness”), and picked up Brett Ratner’s documentary “Author: The JT Le Roy Story,” paying a reported $1 million, which according to the NY Times, was double what others were willing to shell out.
Hulu also got in the mix, acquiring “Weiner,” Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s documentary about Anthony Weiner and his failed New York City mayoral campaign, ahead of its Jan. 24 debut at Sundance. The purchase was part of a larger deal by Hulu to become the streaming home for all future documentary releases from IFC Films, including titles from its brands IFC Films, Sundance Selects and IFC Midnight.
But the streaming services’ swagger did not always result in sales.
Netflix reportedly offered $20 million for “Birth of a Nation” (pictured, above), director Nate Parker’s historical film about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, but it lost out to a $17.5 million distribution deal from Fox Searchlight in a bidding war that also included The Weinstein Co. and Sony. While lower than Netflix offer, it still set the record for the highest price paid for a Sundance acquisition.
Netflix wanted to use a day-and-date theatrical/streaming release for “Birth of a Nation” similar to the one it used with “Beasts of No Nation” last fall. But the producers reportedly preferred Searchlight’s planned wide theatrical release strategy that includes screenings at high schools and colleges. It probably didn’t help that “Beasts of No Nation” took in a mere $90,777 at the box office and failed to earn any Oscar nominations.
The loss harkened back to Sundance 2015, where Netflix offered $5 million for director Bryan Buckley’s comedy “The Bronze,” co-written by and starring Melissa Rauch (“The Big Bang Theory”), only to lose to Relativity Media’s $3 million bid for domestic rights. (Following Relativity’s bankruptcy filing, the film’s North American distribution reverted to Sony Pictures Classics, which will release it domestically on March 18.) But Netflix pulled victory from the jaws of defeat, signing a multi-picture deal with the film’s producers, Duplass Brothers Productions — headed by sibling actor/filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass (co-star of Amazon’s “Transparent”) — that included the titles “Manson Family Vacation” and “6 Years.”
Amazon also suffered a notable loss at the hands of Fox Searchlight at Sundance 2015, where it’s mid-seven figure bid (tendered in partnership with indie theatrical distributor Bleecker Street Films) for director John Crowley’s “Brooklyn,” Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson, was beat out by Searchlight’s $9 million offer.
While Fox Searchlight made an impact at Sundance 2016, other traditional Hollywood distributors hung in the background, underscoring the decreasing viability of the brick and mortar theatrical distribution model for indie films. For instance, The Weinstein Co., long a Park City power player, closed out the fest without making a single reported purchase.
Shelling out big money for a hot indie film on the festival circuit has never been a safe bet — a recent example being Fox Searchlight’s $12 million Sundance 2015 pick-up “Me Earl and the Dying Girl,” which grossed just $6.5 million after six weeks of theatrical release. They’ve primarily served as prestige builders and awards magnets for studios. And they serve the same purpose for streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, with one significant difference — no one can call out the weekend box off numbers (or any other metric) and declare them a winner or loser.
List of Sundance Pick-Ups by Streaming Service:
“Fundamentals of Caring ($7M)
“Audrie & Daisy”
“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”
“Under the Shadow”
“Manchester by the Sea” ($10M)
“Author: The JT Le Roy Story” ($1M)
“Weiner” (part of a larger deal with IFC Films that also includes “City of Gold” and “King Georges”)