Sundance Market: Fewer Big Deals As Buyers Get Cautious

Sonia Recchia/Getty Images

The market was undeniably slower this year with the absence of Netflix and Amazon snapping up titles.

No Netflix. No Amazon. No problem.

Despite dominating the past several Sundance markets, the two streamers had yet to make a move by the Jan. 24 festival midpoint. Instead, an even newer newcomer (Neon) and a more established but still unlikely player (Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions) dominated the deals space.

Neon, which was launched just one year ago at Sundance 2017, made the splashiest move of the fest by snapping up Sam Levinson's uber-violent female empowerment thriller Assassination Nation on Jan. 23. Neon's Tom Quinn and Tim League partnered with Joe and Anthony Russo's AGBO, itself founded only eight months ago with backing from China-based Huayi Brothers Media Corp., to pony up just north of $10 million for the controversial film. The deal calls for a 1,200-screen theatrical commitment. Assassination Nation marked the second acquisition of the festival for Neon, coming a day after it picked up the police shooting drama Monsters and Men for low-seven figures.

"There's a thoughtful and measured approach to the acquisitions due to the evolving competition for audience attention," says Endeavor Content partner Deb McIntosh, who negotiated both the Assassination Nation and Monsters and Men deals. "Filmmakers want to understand and agree with their distributor's marketing and release strategy before getting into a deal. Financiers are making more sophisticated decisions about deal structure."

Though SPWA typically is more active at international markets like Cannes, it has made three major purchases at Sundance, including the John Cho-led internet thriller Search, paying $5 million for worldwide rights. SPWA also scooped up all international rights to Debra Granik's drama Leave No Trace and the Nick Offerman music-themed crowd-pleaser Hearts Beat Loud.

In a sign of Sundance's evolution as a market, there were major TV deals to be had. Starz paid a $5 million licensing fee for Hoop Dreams director Steve James' unscripted 10-part docuseries America to Me. That price tag eclipsed Bleecker Street and 30West's U.S. rights deal for the Keira Knightley starrer Colette, a film seen as having solid awards-season potential for its star.

Still, the market was undeniably slower this year than last, when The Big Sick, Mudbound and Patti Cake$ all hit eight figures. Case in point: At press time, only one doc had found a home, the Slamdance puppy film Pick of the Litter, which sold to IFC's Sundance Selects label.

At this same point last year, Netflix alone had bought four docs: Oscar nominee Icarus, Casting JonBenet, Nobody Speak and Chasing Coral. (A flurry of smaller deals subsequently have closed including Gunpowder & Sky taking North American rights to Hearts Beat Loud, The Orchard teaming with MoviePass for the heist pic American Animals and Lionsgate nabbing worldwide rights to Blindspotting. On the doc side, Three Identical Strangers sold to Neon and RBG was acquired by Magnolia/Participant Media).

Overall, caution is the buzzword among buyers given that last year's acquisitions yielded just three films that earned more than $4 million at the box office (The Big Sick, Beatriz at Dinner and The Hero).

That left distributors this year seeking novel partnerships with nondistributors to help shoulder the risk, as was seen with Assassination Nation and Colette (though deep-pocketed, neither AGBO nor 30West can put films in theaters, but both will be instrumental in marketing).

Says McIntosh, "The buyers have made it clear that they need to know how to reach a film's audience like never before in order to see success." 

This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.