Netflix, Amazon Look Past Sundance for Their Own Blockbusters

Netflix and Amazon - Illustration - H 2018
Illustration by John Ueland

"Frankly, I was confused," says one agent as the top streamers suddenly give festival fare the cold shoulder in favor of homegrown originals, and Woody Allen's deal is more problematic than previously thought.

Following the Jan. 20 premiere of the Sundance sex abuse drama The Tale, Amazon motion picture head Ted Hope expressed serious interest, dubbing it his favorite film of the festival. The Jennifer Fox-helmed film, seen as an awards-season vehicle for star Laura Dern, also dovetailed with the zeitgeist #MeToo movement, with its narrative centered on how a rape survivor copes. But 24 hours after the film's debut, Amazon backed off, leaving HBO with one less competitor as it made a $7 million offer and an Emmy campaign pitch for Dern.

Likewise, Netflix was one of the finalists for the festival's biggest catch, Sam Levinson's Assassination Nation, making an eight-figure offer and hanging in until the final hours of deal-making. Still, the streaming giant was beaten by upstart Neon and Joe and Anthony Russo's newly launched AGBO's $10 million bid, which guaranteed a wide theatrical release.

By the festival's end Jan. 28, neither Amazon nor Netflix had bought a single title, a head-scratching twist given that the two deep-pocketed distributors had dominated the Sundance market for the past two years, with Amazon snapping up five films in 2017 and Netflix 10. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings even made the trek to Park City, where he was spotted at screenings including the Paul Rudd starrer The Catcher Was a Spy. What that restraint signals about the leading streamers' film ambitions now is in question as both Amazon and Netflix seem to be focusing on in-house productions.

"Frankly, I was confused," says Jessica Lacy, ICM Partners agent and head of its film finance division. "Given the mandate to release 80 films a year on Netflix, and given [Amazon Studios vp] Jason Ropell's statement that Amazon is definitely still in the independent film space, I found it surprising that they didn't go after any films in a meaningful way."

For Amazon, the contradiction comes as CEO Jeff Bezos has pushed for more populist offerings after the studio transitioned into full-fledged distributor with the release of Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel on Dec. 1. The Allen relationship — negotiated in 2016 by since-ousted studio head Roy Price — might pose an even bigger question mark for the studio.

Amazon already financed and is set to distribute Allen's next film, the $25 million Timothee Chalamet-Elle Fanning starrer A Rainy Day in New York, a move that insiders say is looking increasingly shaky as Chalamet and the film's Rebecca Hall distance themselves from the writer-director, who has been accused by his daughter Dylan Farrow of molesting her at age 7. Price inked a five-film deal with Allen that leaves Amazon on the hook for three more movies after Rainy Day. Internally, the consensus is that Amazon will have no choice but to sever ties with the director, even if that means a hefty payout.

Furthermore, questions about Amazon's film directions likely won't be answered until Price's replacement is named. Nancy Dubuc and Jennifer Salke are among those being courted for a high-ranking role within the company, though not necessarily to replace Price. Until his exit in October, Amazon was known to move fast, putting it in sharp contrast to the major studios. For instance, director Gus Van Sant, who debuted his Amazon-financed Joaquin Phoenix-led drama Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot at Sundance to rave reviews, developed the film at Sony for nearly two decades before Amazon rescued it.

“Amazon read it and just said that they would do it. That was about a year ago,” says Van Sant. “There were notes, and there was a pass that I did according to the notes, but it wasn’t, you know, changing the fabric of the film. It was never intensive.”

Amid uncertainty, Amazon appears to be moving more cautiously, failing to make an offer on a single film at Sundance. But one sales agent notes that the studio preemptively bought Dan Fogelman's Life Itself for $10 million. The film had been accepted into Sundance, but the filmmakers quickly pulled it from the lineup. "That's the kind of deal that would have normally happened in the first few days of the festival," says the agent.

Others say that Amazon and Netflix's retreat from Sundance spending indicates confidence in their prebuy and homegrown fare, which was on display at the festival with Don't Worry as well as Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, Spike Lee's Pass Over and Lauren Greenfield's Generation Wealth (all for Amazon). Among the films that Netflix financed and brought to Park City this year were the well-received Come Sunday and the National Lampoon origin story A Futile and Stupid Gesture.

Moving forward, Amazon is in postproduction on the Chalamet-Steve Carell addiction drama Beautiful Boy and has bigger-budget gambles in the works like Mike Leigh's Peterloo; an adaptation of The Goldfinch with Warner Bros.; and Tom Harper's Eddie Redmayne-Felicity Jones epic The Aeronauts (described as Titanic in a hot air balloon). And Amazon is in talks to team with StudioCanal on Radioactive, with Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie.

Similarly, Netflix vp original film Scott Stuber is focusing on homegrown titles and is moving forward with at least one Bright sequel (the first one cost $90 million and was viewed by 11 million people in its first three days). It is said to be courting Alejandro G. Inarritu for an original drama. Netflix also has rescued a number of stalled studio projects of its own, including the Motley Crue biopic The Dirt, and is in talks to acquire the Cloverfield sequel, both from Paramount.

"The streamers are continuing to push for more commercial fare and taking more control of their destinies by looking inward to develop content," explains Verve partner Bryan Besser.

Ultimately, Sundance 2018's for-sale slate simply may have been lacking in commercial and high-quality fare. After all, A24, Focus Features and Fox Searchlight all sat on the sidelines. Notes Besser, "Because the climate this year was more hunter/gatherer than driven by big titles, the major players were just quieter."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.