Sundance Deals: Buyers Bullish as Docs Flex Their Muscles

Boys State - Sundance - U.S. DOCU - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Sundance

As the festival wrapped, five films had well eclipsed the eight-figure mark.

Never mind those forecasts for a Sundance market cool-down. Despite mediocre box office for a handful of 2019's big-ticket acquisitions, buyers came out in force this year. As the festival wrapped, five films had well eclipsed the eight-figure mark. 

UTA sold Alan Ball's family drama Uncle Frank to Amazon for $12 million and the Andy Samberg starrer Palm Springs was sold to Neon/Hulu for 69 cents over The Birth of a Nation's $17.5 million record from 2016. "We came in bullish with an incredible slate," says UTA's Rena Ronson, "and we couldn't be happier to see our films getting the praise and recognition they deserve."

Amazon had reason to be skittish after its three 2019 purchases (Late Night, The Report and Brittany Runs a Marathon) earned a combined $30 million at the box office. But with a shifting mandate for films that work on Amazon Prime versus in theaters, Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke brought a healthy appetite to Park City, also picking up the female-empowerment drama Herself from Mamma Mia! helmer Phyllida Lloyd for seven figures.

And Searchlight, which entered the fest with the black comedy Downhill and Benh Zeitlin's Wendy, nabbed horror thriller The Night House for $12 million. Other splashy deals included Ironbark (Lionsgate), Kajillionaire (A24), I Carry You With Me (Sony Pictures Classics) and Bad Hair (Hulu).

Docs continued to flex their muscles, most notably Boys State, which sold to Apple for $12 million — the most ever paid for a nonfiction film at a festival (Hulu and Netflix were bidding at the same price for the film, which won the Grand Jury doc prize at the festival). A24, which inked a multiyear partnership with Apple in 2018, will theatrically release the coming-of-age movie about Texas teens who gather to build a representative government (Submarine negotiated the deal).

Sony Classics nabbed The Truffle Hunters for $1.5 million (Submarine), while Magnolia and Topic Studios picked up the Kerry Washington-produced ACLU showcase The Fight. The price tag of that film, sold by Submarine/CAA, was initially reported as low seven figures. But at the Feb. 1 awards ceremony when The Fight won a special jury prize, co-director Eli Despres blurted out, "Thank you to Magnolia and Topic Studios for buying this film for $10 million!"

Meanwhile, Cinetic is close to selling the doc Time, about a mother of six who has spent 21 years fighting for the release of her imprisoned husband. Both Boys State and Time hail from Laurene Powell Jobs and Davis Guggenheim's Concordia Studio.

Buyers are looking for 2021 Oscar bait, and Sundance boasts an impressive track record on the doc front, having premiered three of this year's five feature nominees: American Factory, The Edge of Democracy and Honeyland. "The doc market is still very buoyant," says Cinetic's John Sloss, who negotiated last year's $10 million doc megadeal for Knock Down the House.

But one doc seems conspicuously absent from the buying spree: Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's On the Record, dropped by Apple and Oprah Winfrey 15 days before its Jan. 25 world premiere. Despite a rousing premiere with multiple standing ovations and stellar reviews, UTA still hasn't found a home for the Russell Simmons accusers film.