Sundance's Streaming Arms Race: Netflix, Amazon Lead Spending Spree

From a $12 million pickup of Kumail Nanjiani's 'The Big Sick' to an $8 million deal for Marti Noxon's 'To the Bone,' streamers bid high at this year's fest.

Despite frigid temperatures, Sundance's 2017 market was hotter than an Al Gore weather forecast.

Amazon's $12 million pickup of the Kumail Nanjiani off-kilter rom-com The Big Sick arguably is comparable with Fox Searchlight's $17.5 million bid for The Birth of a Nation in 2016 because the latter covered worldwide rights while the Big Sick deal (negotiated by UTA's Rena Ronson) includes just U.S., U.K., Germany and France. That means financier FilmNation can keep adding to the bounty.

Big Sick also signaled that buyers now are willing to shell out big money for a comedy, not just for awards-bait dramas. "You know a deal is getting competitive when you are asked to take a meeting in a parked SUV at the Eccles parking lot," jokes Ronson.

Fox Searchlight plunked down $9.5 million for rap comedy Patti Cake$; negotiated by WME and CAA, it stands as one the market's biggest deals thanks to a $10 million-plus bidding war that included Amazon and Megan Ellison's Annapurna.

Three years ago, the festival's top sale was $3.5 million for The Skeleton Twins. But that was before Amazon and Netflix (which took Marti Noxon's anorexia drama To the Bone for $8 million and Dee Rees' Southern drama Mudbound) arrived and deep-pocketed upstarts like Annapurna began distributing. So far this year, nearly all scripted film sales have hit at least $3 million, including Fun Mom Dinner for nearly $5 million (to Netflix and Momentum). "We are 10 deals in with over $50 million in sales," WME Global's Graham Taylor said at the festival's midway point, and that was before selling To the Bone and Mudbound, the latter selling for eight figures.

Netflix was so active that ICM sold nearly all of its Sundance titles to the streaming service including prebuy The Discovery and The Incredible Jessica James, starring festival breakout Jessica Williams, for $3.5 million as well as Fun Mom Dinner (co-repped with WME and UTA). ICM's Thoroughbred sale (co-repped with WME) to Focus Features became something of an outlier.

In docs, Netflix did its own bingeing (Icarus, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, Nobody Speak), while Amazon paid $6 million for the four-hour Grateful Dead opus Long Strange Trip. Amazon also paid more than $2 million for one the most hot-button films of the festival, Matthew Heineman's ISIS doc City of Ghosts. All that has upped the ante for traditional players such as Searchlight, which paid $4 million for the Scott Rudin-produced dance favorite Step. "In years past, we'd see buyers focus on the same movies, which would logjam the market," notes CAA's Micah Green. "This year, many companies are finding different films to fall for, allowing more sales activity to happen in tandem."

Those other companies included a particularly aggressive upstart in Neon, which bought three movies -- Ingrid Goes West, Roxanne Roxanne and Beach Rats. The company headed by Radius alum Tom Quinn and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League was in the mix on many others including Patti Cake$. All three Neon buys represented well at the Sundance Awards on Jan. 28, with Beach Rats landing the top director prize for Eliza Hittman, Ingrid taking U.S. screenplay honors and Roxanne Roxanne star Chante Adams nabbing the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance.

But in a sign of the times, Sundance gave its top award to Macon Blair's crime thriller I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a film that came into the festival with distribution in place from none other than Netflix. Amazon also scored one of the night's highest honors when its acquisition Crown Heights took home the Audience Award.

The digital buyers with fat wallets represent a big contrast from when Big Sick helmer Michael Showalter first came to Sundance in 2001 with Wet Hot American Summer: "There was Miramax and a few other players. It was all or nothing."

There are still a few remaining high-profile titles up for grabs including the Jack Black starrer The Polka King and Danny Strong's J.D. Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye. Whether Amazon and Netflix snap up either (or both) remains to be seen. But at this point, it wouldn't surprise anyone.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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