Why Hulu Is Once Again Sundance’s Buyer to Watch

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Sundance 2021: “Is Disney going to be aggressive now that can go international with their recently acquired Star in Asia?” one agent tells TheWrap

All eyes are on Disney’s Hulu streaming service as the potential big buyer at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — after a record-breaking purchase of the Andy Samberg-Cristin Milioti comedy “Palms Springs” last year and the new potential to pick up worldwide rights by partnering with the parent company’s overseas streaming service Star. “People still need content, production has been stop-start, so everyone is going to be looking for finished products,” one agent who will be selling films at Sundance told TheWrap. “It sounds like Hulu is gonna be aggressive. Sitting at home, waiting for things to do in the evenings, there is an opportunity for them to pick up some titles. It’s going to be interesting to be Hulu because they are domestic, but is Disney going to be aggressive now that they can go international with their recently-acquired Star in Asia?” (Disney picked up the Mumbai, India-based TV and streaming giant as part of its $71 billion acquisition of Fox two years ago.) A second agent is excited about Hulu’s potential buying power at this year’s festival because there are many ways the company can partner up with other distributors. “We are waiting for a Searchlight and Hulu partnership or even a Disney+ partnership with Hulu, which is an eventual possibility,” the agent said, noting that Hulu partnered last year with indie distributor Neon for a record-breaking $17.5 million deal for “Palm Springs.” Hulu can also buy on its own, the second agent added — as the streamer did last year with a $8 million deal for Justin Simien’s “Bad Hair.” “We’re excited to see what they do because there is such creativity potential.” Representatives for Hulu and Disney did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But industry insiders said that Hulu (with its 38.8 million domestic subscribers as of last month) has emerged as a key component in Disney’s streaming strategy, offering more adult-oriented content from its Fox deal (especially FX) and a way to cater to advertisers. Meanwhile, Disney+ (with 78.8 million U.S. subs) offers a Netflix-level challenger that is draped from head to toe in the family-friendly Disney brand. And to complete the media giant’s version of a mini-cable bundle, ESPN+ (with 10 million as of November 2020) adds additional content whose importance increases as streaming starts to play a larger role in live sports. Instead of rolling out Hulu overseas as they did with Disney+, the company last year opted to roll out a separate streaming service called Star with the more mature content from ABC, Hulu, FX and Freeform, as well as films from 20th Century Studios that Disney acquired in 2019. Last month, Disney announced Star would be available this year in Canada, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, with more countries to follow. The addition of Star gives Disney the opportunity to acquire worldwide rights to content for Hulu and Star without having to team up with an international distributor — which many expect could make the company more of a player at Sundance and other film markets. In general, agents believe we will see a lot of creative deals happening among distributors trying to weather widespread theater closures — not just from Hulu. “The question is how do the more theatrically focused distributors adapt and adjust,” the first agent said, referring to companies like Focus, Sony Classics and Neon that rely on a more traditional theater-first model. “We will continue to see some more creativity and flexibility in their release patterns and potentially more partnerships with the streamers.” Of course, there are already synergies in place. In December, Hulu announced it will be the home of films from corporate sibling Searchlight, while A24 lined up a streaming deal with Apple. With theaters still mostly closed nationwide, all eyes are on the streamers — who both have more need for content and the cash to spend for it. In addition, there are more players in the space since last year — from HBO Max to Peacock to the soon-to-launch Paramount+.

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