Sundance Deals Buzz: Chilly Market Looking for Heat in Second Half

As Amazon scoops up another documentary and Netflix inks pre-festival pacts, well-received films including 'Manchester by the Sea' and 'Goat' are nearing major theatrical acquisitions.

With Sundance 2016 nearing its midway point, there has yet to be a major theatrical acquisition deal reached on the ground. And so far the traditional studio buzz has been usurped by pre-festival pacts for Amazon and Netflix, a trend that seems to be continuing during the festival.

But Sundance’s sleepy status could change quickly with several buzzed-about films generating heated interest over the past 24 hours. Most likely to go first is the Casey Affleck-starrer Manchester by the Sea (one source says the bidding could go as high as $12 million for worldwide rights), which made its world premiere Saturday night and was followed quickly by stellar reviews. Sony Pictures Classics, Universal, Fox Searchlight, TriStar and Lionsgate all are vying for the Kenneth Lonergan-helmed family drama. Sources say bidding was in the $7 million range on Sunday morning. (Amazon then quickly secured the title's streaming rights for around $10 million.) 

It’s worth noting that Universal Pictures chief Donna Langley is here in Park City for a Women at Sundance brunch Monday. A major studio's presence in the mix also bodes well for the final price tag, given that it makes Manchester that rare Sundance film drawing attention from a deep-pocketed studio coming off its best year ever. (Sundance titles typically only entice the specialty labels.) Manchester is seen as having ready-made awards-season potential for star Affleck, though critics, including THR's Todd McCarthy, have suggested that the film be trimmed from its 137 minute length. Though Searchlight is in the mix, sources say that label would be an unlikely winner given Lonergan’s difficulties and legal saga making a previous film, Margaret, with the company.

Also heating up is the pursuit of the fraternity hazing drama Goat, which garnered strong reviews after its Jan. 22 premiere. A24, which has had success with youth-targeted films Spring Breakers and The Spectacular Now, is said to be the frontrunner for the film that features breakout acting performances from Nick Jonas and Ben Schnetzer.

Moving more slowly but still likely to sell soon is Swiss Army Man, which is being courted by IFC Films, The Orchard and Magnolia. Though the film, which features Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse, drew some of the most polarizing reactions at the festival, buyers are eager to get into business with edgy newcomer directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert but are looking for a bargain price.

Another film that is fielding multiple offers is Hunt for the Wilderpeople from director Taika Waititi (whose star has risen after landing the next Thor helming assignment for Marvel).

On the documentary front, Gleason made the biggest splash and is in active motion. The film’s premiere on Saturday left much of the audience in tears (it follows former football pro Steve Gleason and his battle with ALS).

But even though Netflix closed big deals for Paul Rudd's The Fundamentals of Caring (nearly $7 million) and Ellen Page's Tallulah ($5 million) before the festival, and IFC's Sundance Selects division and Showtime teamed for the Anthony Weiner documentary Weiner, as of Sunday morning only one notable deal has closed since the fest started on Jan. 21. Amazon finalized a deal early Sunday morning for the Brett Ratner-produced documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, ultimately outbidding competitors including The Orchard.

Amazon and Netflix also have acquired streaming rights to several smaller Sundance films, annoying theatrical distributors because those rights often come with a major acquisition deal. Tallulah, for instance, drew interest from several traditional specialty divisions but the Netflix deal has dampened that enthusiasm. 

Jan. 24 10:30 a.m. PT Updated with Manchester by the Sea deal with Amazon.