Sundance Shocker: Big-Money Acquisitions Take Indie Film Market by Surprise

Sundance 2019: Amazon has made a splash with two eight-figure festival buys for “Late Night” and “The Report”

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is taking Hollywood insiders by surprise as several distributors have gone on pricey spending sprees, with films flying off the shelves faster than festival goers can say “Pete Davidson is at Tao!”

As of Monday afternoon, three Sundance entries had sold for eight figures: Amazon Studios paid $13 million for Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night” shortly after its Friday premiere, then threw down $14 million in a worldwide deal for the fact-based Adam Driver-Jon Hamm political thriller “The Report.”

And New Line is nearing a $15 million-plus deal for Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light,” about a teenager of Pakistani descent who falls in love with Bruce Springsteen’s music in the midst of Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain.

In addition to the big-spending deals, plenty of other films like Awkwafina’s “The Farewell,” (A24) the Lupita Nyong’o zombie comedy “Little Monsters” (Neon and Hulu), bought Pippa Bianco’s debut film “Share” (A24) and the Riley Keough thriller “The Lodge” (Neon) have all landed healthy seven-figure deals.

“It’s great to see a lot of activity and competition from both streamers and traditional buyers making for an exciting Sundance,” Rena Ronson, Partner and Co-Head of UTA Independent Film Group, told TheWrap.

Valparaiso Pictures’ David Carrico, who executive produced Michael Tyburski’s “The Sound of Silence,” noted that the buying spree may continue as the festival continues — and more films roll out.

“Buyers will pay a serious premium for high quality content that has wide release appeal,” he said. “Aside from the outliers, buyers want fresh original films from filmmakers who have a real voice that can cut through all the noise.”

Heading into the festival, many insiders thought it would likely be a healthy market, but said there likely wouldn’t be the kind of big price tag purchases that have happened at past festivals. And many wondered if the streaming giants would resume the free-spending ways of several years ago.

Amazon, which bought “The Big Sick” for $12 million two years ago and grew it into a $42.9 million art-house hit and awards darling, was mostly quiet last year.

While Amazon has made big statement with two big buys, streaming rival Netflix has so far spent most of its energies promoting projects already in its stable, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s art-world satire “Velvet Buzzsaw” and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”

“We’re curious as to what Netflix does, as I’m sure everyone else is,” Carrico said.

Many buyers have expressed enthusiasm for some of the directorial debuts playing at the festival. “People are excited about the arrival of several first-time filmmakers with genuinely unique voices,” Carrico said, citing Rashid Johnson’s “Native Son,” which sold to HBO; Alejandro Landes’ “Monos,” picked up by Neon; Joe Talbot’s “Last Black Man in San Francisco,” and Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy.”

Still, several of the smaller indie distributors have been reluctant to pull out their checkbooks so far. “We look for quality, star-driven commercial fare at Sundance which is in line with our business model,” Saban Films president Bill Bromiley told TheWrap. “We’ve seen some quality product this year, although in some instances the commercial prospects have been limited.”

Time will tell whether distributors’ big bets on this year’s Sundance films will pay off.

After all, last year Neon and AGBO production company bought “Assassination Nation” for a whopping $10 million — then saw it sputter at the box office, grossing just $2 million domestically.

And three years ago, Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for Nate Parker’s historical drama “The Birth of a Nation,” 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.)