Hollywood Heads to Sundance: 5 Things to Expect, From a Hot Doc Market to Post-Harvey Vetting

After last year, many sales agents and buyers predict that documentaries are here to stay

It’s that time of year again, folks — we’re going to Sundance! Buyers, sellers, filmmakers and film fanatics are heading to Park City, Utah, this week to get a head start on 2019’s hottest independent films.

Like every year since Netflix became public enemy No. 1, the main question is what role the streaming services will have at this year’s festival. How active will the streaming giant be? Who will buy what? How much money will be spent? And after last year’s slow sales market, will we see a healthier landscape overall?

After the big year documentaries had in 2018, many sales agents and buyers predict that docs are here to stay. After all, this year’s festival will feature the Harvey Weinstein doc “Untouchable,” a Michael Jackson exposé “Leaving Neverland,” “Love, Antosha” and many more.

Here are five things to look out for before the 2019 festival begins.

1. Sales Market Will Bounce Back

Sundance acquisitions were muted during last year’s festival, but many sales agents foresee a healthy market for the 2019 festival. After all, before Sundance has even started, seven titles have sold, including “The Nightingale” to IFC Films and “The Souvenir” to A24.

“Overall, it feels like a healthy marketplace this year — the sky is always falling in Sundance land,” one film executive said. “There is a large range of buyers and variety of movies at Sundance, so there is going to be some action.”

“It’s going to be a busy market festival for us, but it’s looking good,” Amy Beecroft, head of Verve Ventures, told TheWrap.

“This year there is a good balance of both high-end titles for sale and films that already have distribution,” Christine D’Souza Gelb, partner at Endeavor Content, said. “One of the most exciting parts of the festival is the buzz that builds around Sundance filmmakers who buyers identify early in the process.”

While agents and sellers are ready to put down their checkbooks for movies they love, don’t expect big-money sales or late-night bidding wars. Last year, Neon and AGBO production company bought “Assassination Nation” for a whopping $10 million — then saw it sputter at the box office with just $2 million domestically. In 2017, Amazon bought “The Big Sick” for $12 million — and grew it into a $42.9 million art-house hit and awards darling.

And three years ago, Fox Searchlight bought Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” for $17.5 million, which is believed to be the highest sum ever paid for a film at the festival. (The film topped out at $15.9 million domestically.)

“Buyers are savvy and generally are paying what they think is necessary to make a deal happen while also fitting their individual business model,” said one insider. “I don’t expect there will be more than one or two legitimate bidding wars but I do expect it will be an active market given the number of players in the space looking for content.”

“People are less inclined to throw as much money at films and if the heat is right and there are competitive offers, I think you’d get to the right place,” Beecroft said.

2. Streamers Are Coming to Buy

Ever since Netflix’s huge buying year four years ago, the question on everyone’s minds has been how prominent Netflix, Amazon and other streamers like HBO, Hulu, Apple, and now Disney+ will be on the acquisitions scene. Many top sales agents believe that Netflix and Amazon’s focus has shifted more toward producing their own conent — but that doesn’t mean they won’t go after a title they love.

Most sellers anticipate that HBO might make a mark at this year’s festival given its success with Laura Dern’s “The Tale” last year and the push by new corporate owner AT&T for the cable network to expand its content. And all eyes are on Hulu, Apple, and even Disney+ who will be arriving with content pipelines to fill and money to spend.

“All of these companies are hungry and are going to come really prepared,” Verve Ventures head Amy Beecroft said.

“I wouldn’t rule anyone out,” another insider added. “It’s not just one buyer buying everything anymore. I want companies like Searchlight, NEON, A24 and Bleecker and all of the others to buy things — I want to see that kind of diversity.”

3. The Year of Documentaries

Docs are still in vogue. Last year, a number of high-profile documentaries found outsize critical and box office success, including “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” “RBG,” “Three Identical Strangers” and “Minding the Gap.” Even less prominent documentaries have had their day in the sun, influencing the cultural conversation — most recently, competing Fyre Festival documentaries from Netflix and Hulu.

“You can’t overstate the incredible year of docs we just had — it certainly doesn’t feel like a fad anymore,” a top Sundance buyer told TheWrap. “Digital platforms have clearly grown the audience for cinematic documentary, more and more people are now seeking them out.”

And as if last year’s success wasn’t enough, another seller said, “This is honestly beginning to feel like the year of the documentary.”

A number of high-profile documentaries at this year’s festival have already found distribution, such as the Michael Jackson doc “Leaving Neverland” (HBO), “Ask Dr. Ruth” (Magnolia) and “The Great Hack” (Netflix). But there are still quite a few that distributors are likely to clamor over, including the Harvey Weinstein doc “Untouchable” and “Knock Down the House,” documenting the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from Bronx bartender to U.S. Congresswoman.

Documentaries are relatively cheap for distributors and even more attractive now that audiences have proven there is a theatrical market for them. But one prominent buyer told TheWrap was skeptical about the genre’s long-term the future.

“There are going to be isolated incidents where they’ll work and win awards, but it will be interesting to see if documentaries can become more than they are now,” the buyer said. “Traditionally, if you look back on business for the last 100 years, they’ve always been more challenging generally to monetize.”

4. The State of the Indies?

The past year was a rough one for independent studios, with stalwarts like The Weinstein Company and Open Road filing for bankruptcy and others, like CBS Films, drifting from the theatrical marketplace altogether.  STX shelved a planned Hong Kong IPO; Annapurna dropped a couple of pricey film projects and parted ways with film division head Chelsea Bernard; and Lionsgate has been on the block for the better part of a year.

Still, many sales agents at this year’s Sundance festival aren’t worried about the potential impact of all this corporate upheaval on acquisitions.

“Most of the U.S. distribution companies we launched with are now gone and new players have entered the fold,” one major buyer told TheWrap. “The business model for what we do as a film distributor is a risky one and hard to predict.”

“I like to be optimistic in terms of the state of the market,” said Rena Ronson, partner and co-head of UTA Independent Film Group. “For every company that is no longer around, another will emerge — and business will continue to shift between production and acquisition, and traditional release and streaming. Our main job is to support the independent community in every way possible on a global basis. Yes, there will be consolidation, but we have to stay ahead of it all and adjust as needed.”

There are certainly headwinds in the industry, but indie buyers and sellers are confident that the main players at Sundance are healthy and will still be active.

“It’s terrible that we’re losing distributors but it doesn’t affect the kind of acquisitions that typically take place at festivals,” another indie film seller told TheWrap. “Those studios, except for Lionsgate, are not big acquisition buyers. It’s just not the films they generally acquire.”

5. More Vetting Post-Harvey

Last year, multiple insiders told TheWrap that buyers would vet filmmakers and stars before they agreed to buy their movies in the wake of #MeToo and post-Harvey — not to mention the revelations about Nate Parker’s past that undermined Fox Searchlight’s rollout of “The Birth of a Nation” in 2016. Two insiders told TheWrap that more vetting is a priority these days, although one shouldn’t be “too cautious.”

“With Harvey gone and everything having changed, people have become more cagey,” one insider said. “After the #MeToo stuff, things take more vetting.”

“Of course we think about it,” another buyer said. “But I wouldn’t say we’re overly sensitive because you can’t be too overly cautious. It’s very individualistic on the film. It depends on the filmmakers and the financiers. Some want to get the deals done quickly, while others want to make sure they checked all the boxes. We do a lot of our homework before going into the festival.”

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