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Sundance Market Preview: Will Netflix and New Streamers Apple and Disney+ Go on Buying Sprees?

Sundance 2019: Netflix and Amazon had a weak presence at the festival last year, but smaller streamers are ready to rumble this year

As Hollywood gears up to head to Park City, Utah, for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, one of the questions on everyone’s mind is how busy prominent streamers like Netflix and burgeoning platforms like Apple and Disney+ will be on Main Street.

Two years ago, Netflix and Amazon Studios dominated the indie marketplace with big-dollar acquisitions like “Mudbound” and “The Big Sick.” Last year, however, they had a quieter festival. Netflix picked up a handful of films like “The Kindergarten Teacher,” and acquired others well after the festival, while Amazon bought zilch.

Many indie film buyers and sellers believe that Netflix and Amazon have shifted their focus to their own production as opposed to acquiring titles, but that doesn’t mean the big streamers won’t pounce on a title or two that catches its team’s fancy.

“We go into every festival with our eyes open,” Chan Phung, Netflix’s director of independent film, told TheWrap. “If there’s something we fall in love with and it’s something we think our members will enjoy, we’ll go after it.”

Still, the streaming giants have shifted their approach to festivals. “Netflix and Amazon have been pretty vocal about not being as acquisitive because their style has been more production-focused. Still, streaming platforms remain essential in enabling the independent studios in their acquisition efforts because post-theatrical output deals offset costs,” one insider told TheWrap.

“Netflix has definitely become a studio unto themselves,” said Mikey Schwartz-Wright, an agent at UTA’s Independent Film Group. “They will go to Sundance and if they see something they like, they can spring for it. They don’t need to buy films as much as they once did.”

But while many expect at more “muted showing” from Netflix and Amazon in Sundance, many are hoping for a strong showing from HBO, which is expected to ramp up its content offerings under new corporate owner AT&T. In addition, the company scored last year with Laura Dern’s “The Tale,” which it acquired post-Sundance for high-seven figures and rolled out to stellar reviews and Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.

Jessica Lacy, ICM’s partner and department head for international and independent film, added that “HBO has an appetite to acquire films like they did with ‘The Tale.’ They have certainly been more active in seeing films that are finished, and if the mood strikes, there’s a lot that could make sense for them this year.”

Amy Beecroft, head of Verve Ventures, noted that “HBO has an incredible reputation for having been the founders of what we used to call ‘theatrical television,’ long before the existence of Netflix.”

Film agents still expect “strong showings” from indie powerhouses such as A24, Magnolia Pictures, Neon, Annapurna, Sony Pictures Classics, Saban Films and Bleecker Street, but also expect streaming platforms like Hulu, Apple and even Disney + to make their presence known. “All of these companies are hungry and are going to come really prepared,” Beecroft said.

In fact, Apple’s acquisition of the wildlife documentary “The Elephant Queen” at the Toronto International Film Festival in September solidified their interest in the indie film market, although the streaming platform hasn’t officially announced a release date — or any specific plans for its service at all.

“I certainly look to them as a real player — and an exciting one,” Lacy said. “We’re likely to see the landscape change with streaming platforms, but ultimately, that may not take as myopic effect as this forthcoming Sundance.”

Hulu is always an active player, according to the insiders, and “Disney+ will be there.”

It’s not clear how Fox Searchlight, a big buyer in the past, will operate under Disney, which is completing its $71.3 billion acquisition of the lion’s share of Fox’s entertainment assets. Disney does plan to keep Searchlight’s management team intact, including co-chairmen Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula, as well as co-presidents of production for film and TV, Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum. Disney+ is looking at a launch date later this year. 

A spokesperson for Fox Searchlight told TheWrap that it will be business as usual for the studio at Sundance.

While insiders expect the streamers to be active at the 2019 festival, many expect some volatility in that space in the near term. “There will be one more year of uncertainty as streaming platforms shake out,” said Jim Meenaghan, partner and co-head of UTA Independent Film Group. “For independent films, there will be a lot more buying once Fox, Disney+, Apple, Warners and other new platforms have solidified.”

Overall, everyone sales agent and buyer that TheWrap spoke to agrees: This year, we will see a healthy sales market.

“All of those [companies] will be on the ground,” said one buyer. “It will be opportunistic for everyone this year — but I have not heard of anyone coming in with a big checkbook this year.”

Another said, “I wouldn’t rule anyone out. 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.”

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