Sundance Wrap: Amazon Takes Control of an Explosive Market

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Emily Aragones/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

With Jen Salke at the helm, the studio spent some $47 million on five films — more money than any other studio has ever shelled out in a single year at the festival.

After sitting out last year's Sundance market entirely, Amazon returned with a roar, spending some $47 million on five films — more money than any other studio has ever shelled out in a single year at the festival.

Amazon struck first, closing a $13 million deal early on Jan. 26 for the Emma Thompson-Mindy Kaling comedy Late Night, a Sundance record-setting sum for U.S. rights. With Amazon's Jennifer Salke and Julie Rapaport spearheading negotiations, by 6:30 a.m. the studio had beat out a Neon-Hulu bid. (CAA's Roeg Sutherland and Maren Olson and 30West's Micah Green represented the filmmakers.)

Late Night's $13 million haul was eclipsed two days later by Amazon — again — when it took worldwide rights to the Scott Z. Burns political thriller The Report for $14 million (Adam Driver stars in the film about the Bush/Cheney-era torture program). Hours later, that deal was itself one-upped by New Line buying worldwide rights to Gurinder Chadha's coming-of-age drama Blinded by the Light for $15 million. And by Jan. 30, Amazon made its third eight-figure deal of the festival for the Jillian Bell starrer Brittany Runs a Marathon ($14 million for worldwide rights to the Paul Downs Colaizzo-helmed film).

"This was a great way to start the market," Olson tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It got everybody active. We want the market healthy, companies buying movies, releasing them, and doing so in a strategic way."

While other buyers headed back to Los Angeles or on to Berlin, Amazon stayed in Park City given that the studio had previously backed the closing night film, Troop Zero. On the night of Jan. 30, Salke held a team dinner and gave the go-ahead for more shopping, with Ted Hope and Matt Newman (who co-lead the film division with Rapaport) and marketing and distribution head Bob Berney unleashed. The following morning, the studio landed another film, Shia LaBeouf's semi-autobiographical drama Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har'el. The price tag was $5 million for worldwide rights.

And adding an exclamation point on its market prowess, Amazon bought its final film on the ground, the documentary One Child Nation, just hours after it was crowned the top doc at the festival's closing ceremony on Feb. 2. A source pegged that deal at high-six figures, a relative bargain by 2019 standards.

Privately, Amazon's rivals were critical of the studio's seismic moves, saying that Salke was disrupting a delicate indie film ecosystem given that the fest has a poor track record of turning mammoth buys into breakout box office hits (think Patti Cake$ and last year's Assassination Nation). Still, others concede that Amazon has enjoyed its biggest box office successes with Sundance acquisitions, such as Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick, which earned $79 million and $56 million worldwide, respectively.

"We will see the big streaming platforms flexing their spending muscles to continue acquiring content, but as we all know if the subscriber numbers and the return on investment isn’t there, these high prices aren’t sustainable," says marketing consultant Marc Becker, whose Tangent Agency works with all of the major studios. "That being said, the way streaming services are going to rise to the top is by having the best content." 

In addition to Amazon's big spending, the most striking trend afoot was the fact that four of the six biggest Sundance deals involved films directed by women, including A24's $7 million deal for worldwide rights excluding China to Lulu Wang's The Farewell (Netflix tried unsuccessfully to make a play for the film after it had closed, offering $10 million, according to a source). Netflix did, however, score U.S. rights to the Zac Efron-starrer Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile for $9 million, as well as two of the buzziest documentaries available with Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's American Factory for $3 million (the film won the top doc directing prize); and the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign chronicle Knock Down the House (winner of the Audience Award prize for best doc). 

And much to the delight of sales agents, Apple finally made good on its promise to buy narrative features. After buying the documentary The Elephant Queen out of the Toronto market last fall, the streamer bought Minhal Baig's coming-of-age drama Hala, which centers on a Muslim teen girl and her sexual awakening (Jada Pinkett Smith championed the film and serves as an executive producer). On the doc front, Sony Pictures Classics bought Where's My Roy Cohn? and David Crosby: Remember My Name, The Orchard nabbed Halston and Magnolia picked up The Brink. Smaller narrative deals included IFC taking the Keira Knightley-led whistleblower thriller Official Secrets for $2 million and The Orchard's buy of the Gerard Butler-produced Them That Follow.

"There was more energy in the market compared to last," says The Farewell and Honey Boy producer Anita Gou. "The lineup had a dynamic quality, and there was something for everyone. All the new players made a difference as well.”

Case in point, Hulu entered the film acquisition business by teaming with Neon for U.S. rights to the Lupita Nyong'o zombie comedy Little Monsters. Neon also bought U.S. rights to the horror film The Lodge for $2 million and the Naomi Watts-fronted drama Luce as well as Alejandro Landes’ survivalist thriller Monos (buyers were looking to get into business with Landes, given that he is considered one of the hottest up-and-coming directors at the fest).

Still, there was at least one development that gave buyers and sellers pause as A24 dumped two of its films — Rashid Johnson’s Native Son and Internet cautionary tale Share — to HBO ahead of their Sundance premieres.

Asks one rival buyer, “Since when does A24 sell its theatrical films to a television network?”