There are two lessons to be learned from last year’s Sundance Film Festival — or at least two that the industry won’t quit talking about as players strap on snow boots and head to Utah.
First, they should learn to adjust to the shadow cast by deep-pocketed streaming companies, who last year made a grand entrance to Park City by dropping millions of dollars on small films and subsequently rattling the indie theatrical marketplace.
“What we’re seeing now are these companies calibrating what their risk appetite is, after a splashy year last year,” one top dealmaker headed to Sundance told TheWrap.
Splashy indeed. Netflix paid $5 million for Ellen Page’s “Tallulah” and roughly $7 million for the Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez dramedy “Fundamentals of Caring.”
Amazon plunked down $10 million for Kenneth Longergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” with a $15 million P&A commitment attached — a figure so high that art houses and rival indie distributors balked.
“This deal makes no sense,” one peeved executive who couldn’t best Amazon in the bidding war said at the time. “It creates a slur of cash for movies that won’t see the return.”
What a difference a year makes. A Best Actor Oscar for “Manchester” star Casey Affleck seems like a safe bet at this point in the awards race, and the movie is hovering near $40 million at the domestic box office.
And while “Tallulah” or “Fundamentals of Caring” may have been risky propositions for most indie distributors — neither received even a token theatrical release — they may have worked just fine to help fill Netflix’s subscription-based pipeline with original star-driven content.
“These companies have nothing to prove,” another powerful film broker told TheWrap, “and they have pipelines to fill for their customers. I’d say Netflix will be more aggressive this year because of what they lost out on last year. “
While the two stream giants are expected to continue their dominance of the market for indies with recognizable stars, the volume of deals might take a hit this year, numerous insiders familiar with the market warned.
“There were a couple of big home runs right away last year but I’d expect some doubles and triples this year,” one sales executive said. “There wasn’t a lot of fanfare around sales titles at Toronto last year, but trust me those deals are coming, it’s just that everyone is trying to take a measured approach to distribution in this new world.”
Speaking of measured approaches, the second lesson from last year’s festival seems to center on writer/actor/director/star Nate Parker.
The “Birth of a Nation” filmmaker won over Sundance with his portrait of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, and landed a heady $18.5 million deal from Fox Searchlight. The film and Parker were seen as instant Oscar contenders.
What a difference a few months of bad press makes. Just before his film rolled out last fall, stories surfaced about Parker’s college-era acquittal on rape charges and his accuser’s 2012 suicide.
The mess culminated in a hostile Toronto Film Festival press conference in September, which seemed to hobble the film’s prospects both at the box office and in the awards race. Despite mostly glowing reviews, the film only fetched $15.8 million domestically.
“There may be some extra caution with first-time filmmakers,” the first dealmaker said. “And Searchlight might exercise some caution, but I don’t think the impact will be too great.”
Another executive wondered aloud if “Birth” might have fared better if it had gone to its top bidder — Netflix, which offered $20 million but lost out thanks to Searchlight’s expert handling of 2015’s Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave.”
“I wonder if people would have been OK watching it in the secrecy of their homes, for curiosity purposes,” the executive said. “Who wanted to go out and buy a ticket to that?”
The Sundance Film Festival runs January 19-29.