Sundance 2020: Streamers Spent Big and Documentaries Are All the Rage

Sundance 2020: “The headline for this festival is that the documentary moment has arrived,” producer Bryn Mooser says

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival has come and gone, and the marketplace for sales recovered from a slow start to produce a healthy stream of acquisitions — including a record-breaking sale for Andy Samberg’s “Palm Springs” and a lot of activity in the documentary genre.

“The headline for this festival is that the documentary moment has arrived,” said Bryn Mooser, founder and CEO of XTR, which produced both “Mucho Mucho Amor” and “The Fight” that sold at the fest. “Where you saw the most momentum, where you saw the most excitement, where you saw people having the most conversations, was really all documentary this year. And I think you’re seeing that reflected in sales.”

Indeed, many insiders pointed to how well the documentaries fared at this year’s Sundance. In the past, Sundance has always been a prime launch pad for docs, but the insiders said this year’s interest in docs was reflected in Apple and A24’s record $12 million acquisition of the political coming-of-age doc “Boys State” as well as Netflix’s purchase of the Walter Mercado doc “Mucho Mucho Amor” before the festival had even started.

Additionally, Sony Pictures Classics nabbed the worldwide rights to the documentary “The Truffle Hunters,” and Magnolia and Topic Studios bought the ACLU doc “The Fight” for the low-seven figures. “Siempre, Luis,” about the father of Lin-Manuel Miranda, also sold to HBO Documentary Films.

Mooser added: “Not only were documentaries the biggest celebrities of Sundance, but documentaries drove the biggest celebrities at Sundance, from Taylor Swift to Hillary Clinton. The people that you were talking about at Sundance were connected to documentaries. This is extraordinary. It’s not only a huge year for documentaries in terms of business but it’s a huge year in terms of being front and center in the conversation. Ron Howard brought a film to Sundance, and it was a documentary. How cool is that?”

Beyond the documentary genre, the Sundance market saw a healthy stream of acquisitions after a relatively lethargic start.

“On the ground, it seemed like a smaller footprint than in years past, but it was still a great festival nonetheless,” one producer, who had a feature film premiere at the festival, told TheWrap. “There were quality films and a lot of big sales, which was good to see because there was a lot of concern from some producers and sales agents that it was going to be a weak market. While it has been a slow market, it also turned out to be a robust market.”

Indeed, it took four days for the first sale to happen (Amazon Studios acquired Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself”), putting this year’s festival at a much slower pace than previous years. By the end of the first Sunday of last year’s festival, more than seven films had sold, including pricey deals for “Late Night,” “The Farewell” and “Native Son.”

However, Amazon’s “Herself” pickup and Searchlight’s $12 million spend for Rebecca Hall’s “The Night House” started a snowball effect: by Monday, Amazon paid $12 million for Alan Ball’s “Uncle Frank,” Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions teamed up for Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Ironbark” and Hulu teamed with Neon for Andy Samberg’s “Palm Springs” and set a Sundance sales record of $17.5 million … and 69 cents.

And since then, even more product has sold, with many more projects about to be snatched up in the days and weeks after the festival fever has died down. “There are always sales that happen at the festival, and the press loves to have a heyday with the bigger ones, but there are a lot of deals that are still happening and still closing and haven’t closed yet,” one studio insider told TheWrap. “So it feels a little bit early to predict what kind of festival it was. It wasn’t shocking in any way, but there’s still business left to be done.”

There’s been talk for years about how the streamers will impact the independent film market, especially after last year, when Amazon spent upwards of $50 million on projects like “Late Night” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” that underperformed at the box office. (Amazon Studios execs maintains that they measure success by streaming subscribers and not by box office, and that both films were within the top five best performing films on Prime Video of all time.) This year, however, the streamers continued to spend big — especially Hulu, which joined Neon in the acquisition of “Palm Springs” and bought Justin Simien’s “Bad Hair.”

“The streamers really came in with buying power — even on the docs,” the producer said. “So apparently buyers weren’t afraid to flex some spending power, but it will be interesting to see how those high sales prices translate outside of the Sundance festival.”

The studio insider added: “The streamers, they came out strong and set the tone with the Hulu/Neon and Amazon with ‘Uncle Frank’ and ‘Herself,’ so that was par for the course for the last couple of years, so the sales were, not withstanding the big one with ‘Palm Springs,’ but I wouldn’t say it was a shocking festival in any way.”

In fact, the studio exec noted that streamers have become “just part of the ecosystem” — even teaming with more conventional indie distributors to handle theatrical releases. “If anything is new it’s that we’ve all kind of decided to co-exist and this environment is what it is, and the streamers are alongside the more traditional players and everyone is finding their content, and now there’s a New Normal,” the exec said.

Mooser noted how newer streamers like HBO Max and Disney+ made their presence known this year. “We’re seeing new platforms arrive that weren’t around in Sundances in the past,” he said. “You’re going to see these new players — Disney+, HBO Max — starting to show up, and it’ll be interesting to see what that does to the industry, but from my perspective, it’s only going to mean more interest in documentaries.”

The studio insider also noted the festival’s emphasis on films from underrepresented groups. “The diversity across titles that have sold so far is kind of wonderful,” the insider said. “There are films by women, there are films by people of color, there are foreign films, there are documentaries. Along the lines of saying there’s something for everyone, the buying has really been across the spectrum in a way that’s been really lovely.”

Brian Welk contributed to this report. 

Beatrice Verhoeven

Beatrice Verhoeven

Senior Film Reporter



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