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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?"
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