The duds of last year ('Dope,' 'Me and Earl') could mean a chillier market, but hungry new buyers and dreams of Oscar glory ('Brooklyn') will help dealmakers endure.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Just how hot was Sundance 2015? Last year's indie film market featured three mega-sales thanks to Brooklyn, Dope and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — with the trio fetching a combined $24 million. But with the latter two films falling flat at the box office, the backlash could be more chilling than a Mount Timpanogos wind gust.
"Call it the Happy, Texas award," says Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard, referring to the dud that Harvey Weinstein bought for more than $10 million in 1999. "Every year, someone thinks they've got gold, and they go for it. Last year, there were three."
Despite the two high-priced washouts, no one is predicting a buyer's market given the number of deep-pocketed, hungry distributors including Broad Green (newly staffed up), Amazon and Netflix. But even sales agents concede privately that wide-release deals likely will take a hit. With the coming-of-age dramedy Dope, Open Road shelled out $7 million, with a $15 million prints-and-advertising commitment. But the wide-release film earned $18 million at the box office.
Still, price tags are expected to remain somewhat steady. Consider that Netflix paid nearly $7 million for worldwide SVOD rights for the Paul Rudd starrer The Fundamentals of Caring before the festival. That's a figure that can eclipse the top theatrical deal in a slow Sundance year like 2014, when The Skeleton Twins sold for $3.5 million.
"This year will be similar to other recent markets, where there will be a few films that garner a disproportionate amount of attention in terms of pricing," says WME Global's Graham Taylor. "But there will be a ton of movies that find a home for middle-class prices."
In addition to relatively new competitors Broad Green, Netflix and Amazon, other distributors are looking to fill holes in their slates, including wild card Paramount, which made a splash at the most recent Toronto Film Festival, picking up Anomalisa and Florence Foster Jenkins, and is expected to be active at Sundance. Focus Features has a full 2016 slate and likely won't be as aggressive as A24 or upstarts like The Orchard, which bought four films at last year's market including The Overnight. SPC will be on the hunt, especially considering that it has no big Oscar movie this season outside of the foreign film category.
The doc market should be particularly robust this year, with TV networks, streaming services and prestige labels chasing the best offerings. Among the ones generating heat are Gleason, about an NFL defensive back diagnosed with ALS, and Life, Animated, which centers on an autistic boy who emerged from his isolation by immersing himself in Disney animated movies. Both are being courted for remake rights as well.
And while there are questions about how active The Weinstein Co. will be, sales agents insist that COO David Glasser and his team are tracking projects and will be in the mix if the price is right.
"More films will find homes faster than they have in previous years simply because there's more demand on the distribution side of the industry," says CAA's Micah Green. "Studios are in the space. Digital platforms are in the space on their own accord as buyers and as ancillary partners for independent theatrical companies. Whether three or four films will sell for a really big number like last year, who knows?"
DIRECTOR Kelly Reichardt
BUZZ Reichardt is back with her go-to star Michelle Williams (they made Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff). The drama about the intersecting lives of three women in small-town America also stars Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart.
DIRECTOR Joshua Marston
BUZZ The Maria Full of Grace helmer has assembled an impressive cast — Rachel Weisz, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates and Danny Glover — for a twisty drama about a couple and a mysterious former flame who reappears in the man’s life.
DIRECTOR Andrew Neel
BUZZ Nick Jonas pledges a fraternity only to learn the perverse depths of "brotherhood." The film also stars Ben Schnetzer and James Franco, who produced as well.
DIRECTOR Taika Waititi
BUZZ This latest from the What We Do in the Shadows director (who’s signed to helm the next Thor) follows a manhunt in the New Zealand wild in search of a missing child and his foster uncle.
DIRECTOR Kenneth Lonergan
BUZZ Casey Affleck gives the type of performance sure to entice distributors looking for an awards contender in this drama about a man forced to care for his teenage nephew after his brother dies.
DIRECTOR Chris Kelly
BUZZ The comedy hails from husband-and-wife producers Adam Scott and Naomi Scott (The Overnight). Molly Shannon gives a break-out performance in the film about a struggling comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) who returns to Sacramento, Calif., to care for his dying mother.
DIRECTOR Richard Tanne
BUZZ There’s no shortage of name recognition with the couple portrayed in this romance story, which chronicles the first date of a young Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson.
DIRECTORS Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Kwan
BUZZ Think a hyperstylized Cast Away about a hopeless man (Paul Dano) stranded in the wild. A corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore, and the man winds up befriending the stiff.
DIRECTOR Todd Solondz
BUZZ Sadly, it’s not a follow-up to the director’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, which first launched the nickname "wiener dog." But Solondz hasn’t lost his unconventional touch as he chronicles the life of a dog as it travels the U.S.