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While the Sundance Film Festival officially ended on Jan. 30, the market is still far from over for buyers and sellers. “We’re still in the middle of Sundance as far as I am concerned,” laughs ICM Partners’ Jessica Lacy.
The 2022 Sundance saw a possible market correction. It was the first fest in several years to not produce some sort of record-breaking sale, but few to none expected massive deals. Streamers kept up their market dominance (if not the streamers some were expecting). And while solid sales continued to roll in in the low- to mid-seven-figure range, the pace of deal-making notably slowed, a product of the practicalities of the virtual market, among other factors.
Last year saw headline-grabbing price tags for CODA ($25 million to Apple) and Summer of Soul (over $12 million to Searchlight and Hulu), but sales quickly petered out, with titles then taking months to land distribution. Still, Sundance vets agree that, while the numbers are nowhere near as high, the 2022 market is shaping up to be more steady for sales.
Noticeably absent from this year’s market: Netflix and Amazon. Thus far, Netflix has only acquired one title, the documentary Descendant, which the streamer will release with Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground, and Amazon has yet to buy a Sundance feature. Both Amazon and Netflix debuted a handful of their own titles at the fest, including two in the dramatic competition for Amazon. But Netflix had one of the biggest buys out of last year’s market with Rebecca Hall’s Passing ($15 million), and Amazon has long been one of the fest’s most prominent buyers, with over $40 million reportedly spent across three movies at the 2019 festival and taking home four major titles in 2020.
Still, streamers made up the fest’s biggest deals. Apple had the priciest pick-up of the fest thus far, paying $15 million for Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, while HBO Max via Warner Bros. grabbed Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne’s Am I OK?, and Searchlight took Mimi Cave’s Fresh and Emma Thompson starrer Leo Grande, planning North American streaming releases on Hulu for both, with Fresh heading to Star+ in Latin America and Disney+ in all other territories.
Many of these major streaming sales happened early on in the market, with theatrical sales continuing to roll in after the festival’s conclusion. (Insiders note that some of the buys announced early in the fest were backstop deals.) Despite the independent theatrical marketplace still largely in a state of limbo due to the continued COVID-19 pandemic now buoyed by the omicron variant, specialty distributors, from Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics and Bleecker Street, made a solid showing.
But the definition of Sundance success has shifted. Says Submarine’s Josh Braun, “The success stories are now films that sold for a lot of money and went to a streamer, so I think that is what everyone is focused on.”
At a TIFF’s Visionaries discussion in September, former Searchlight Pictures co-chairman Steve Gilula, who stepped down along with fellow co-chairman Nancy Utley last year, offered: “Now the filmmakers can wait for the giant check that comes in from Netflix and Amazon, who will pay $20 million, $30 million for a film they think has awards potential. The values are completely distorted and irrational. [But it means] our model is completely obsolete now.”
Shying away from an international presale model, some financiers are holding all territories in order to keep worldwide rights open in the hopes of attracting global streaming services that may look for worldwide availability as a prerequisite for an acquisition. Two execs compared this strategy to a game of roulette, and cite it as a contributing factor to the market’s pace.
Sellers holding out for a big streamer sale can create a bottleneck, slowing down the entire process. Elsewhere, the nature of the virtual market allows for buyers to take their time in deciding what titles they want to go after.
“If you are accountable to someone, seeing them two to three times a day at different movies, there might have been a higher clip to the dealmaking, but people seem very content and there was no immediacy,” notes Scott Shooman, senior vp acquisitions at IFC Films.
Many sellers chose not to prescreen titles, in an attempt at re-creating a sense of in-person urgency in the online market. But the pace of the sales has remained, if not steady, slow.
“We couldn’t be happier with our result, but I have no doubt that in a real environment this sale is an all-night auction, which maybe ends up with different economics, maybe not,” says Alexis Garcia, exec vp in the Film Group at Endeavor Content, of Cha Cha Real Smooth. The outfit co-produced and co-financed the film, along with doc 2nd Chance, which landed at Showtime. But, Garcia adds, “That being said, that has historically led to a bunch of films that didn’t play to audiences outside of that heightened environment.”
Past big-ticket Sundance pick-ups like New Line’s Blinded by the Light and Amazon’s Late Night fell flat at the box office, with $18 million and $22 million in global receipts, respectively. Of course, the box office is not the metric of success it once was after the pandemic-aided rise in streaming viewership numbers. The virtual festival format allowed for increased accessibility and a larger cross-section of viewership. While numbers have not been released for this year’s attendance, the 2021 virtual Sundance reached a total audience 2.7 times larger than at the typical 11-day Utah edition, according to the Sundance Institute. Buyers could look at more social media reactions, from Twitter to Letterboxd, to prognosticate prospective audience responses.
Other reasons given as to why the market has been slow include, but are not limited to, a rush to production by studios post-COVID lessening demand and the films on offer, which skewed toward discovery titles from up-and-coming filmmakers and away from A-list ensembles from returning alums. While issue-oriented fare dominated the lineup, genre and nonfiction titles, both of which have found continued success in the pandemic, were big at this year’s Sundance.
On the nonfiction front, A Fire of Love became the fest’s first big sale, going to National Geographic Documentary Films. (Between Searchlight and Nat Geo, Disney-backed outfits proved to be some of the biggest Sundance buyers.) “We were more curatorial and exacting in what we took to Sundance than we have ever been,” says Braun, who repped the Sara Dosa-directed doc, which is due to get a significant theatrical release. “We turned down some films that we probably would have signed in previous years.”
Shooman and his team grabbed genre titles The Watcher and Resurrection, partnering with Shudder, the AMC-owned horror-focused streaming service. “The way we look at it is, ‘How can any company be a value add?’” says Shooman. “IFC Films brings a certain level of prestige and a certain auteur stamp, and Shudder is one of the best brands in horror.”
For Erik Feig, whose Picturestart banner was behind Cha Cha (with Endeavor Content) and Am I OK?, a deal comes down to two things: “What is the right deal. and how is that being priced for what our financial investment is? And then, what is the right creative and marketing partner?” He adds, “We didn’t spend all of this time in making this independent film to just say, ‘Goodbye and good luck.'”
As for what this year’s market could signify for the following years, insiders are reticent to guess. Says Feig, “How much of it do you grade it on a curve [because of] the last-minute switch to virtual, which dampened the momentum, and how much is the shifting landscape because of the maturing of the streaming platforms and the fragility of the theatrical platforms?”
The 2022 Sundance market happened as the industry finds itself in the middle of a greater transitional marketplace, some two years into a pandemic that’s been raging long enough to keep specialty theaters shuttered and to see streaming services hit both historic highs and lows.
Surmises Lacy, “It doesn’t mean that the films that take longer are going to be at a drastically lower level, it just means some things take longer to navigate.”
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