Sundance Wrap: Why Netflix and Amazon Dominance Matters

Manchester By The Sea - Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck -still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The streaming giants scored a combined 12 high-profile acquisitions.

What a difference a year makes.

Last January, Amazon didn't buy a single film at the Sundance Film Festival. This year, the streaming giant bought six, including the second-biggest deal of the festival, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea for a whopping $10 million. Similarly, Netflix — which bought just one small documentary at Sundance 2015, the porn world expose Hot Girls Wanted — swooped in and snatched up six titles, including the Paul Rudd road trip film The Fundamentals of Caring for nearly $7 million.

As the annual indie festival officially wrapped Sunday, there was no mistaking the seismic shifts wrought by Amazon and Netflix. The 12 high-profile sales — including Tallulah, Under the Shadow, Brahman Naman, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You and Audrie & Daisy for Netflix and Love & Friendship, Complete Unknown, Wiener-Dog, Gleason and Author: The JT LeRoy Story for Amazon — indicate how the deep-pocketed streaming giants have changed the Sundance landscape. Even when they landed on the losing end of a bidding war, Netflix and Amazon helped pump up the prices of such films as eventual jury and audience award winner The Birth of a Nation (sources say Netflix bid $20 million before Fox Searchlight landed the slave revolt drama for $17.5 million) and Swiss Army Man (both Amazon and Netflix were in the hunt for the quirky survivalist tale that sold to A24 for low seven figures).

Though they are frequently lumped together, the two titans’ Sundance strategies differed widely. With Ted Hope leading the Amazon acquisitions charge, the company bought domestic theatrical rights on its six titles and will serve as the domestic distributor. Amazon will be responsible for bringing in a theatrical partner to co-release, with the company's Bob Berney overseeing all marketing and distribution.

By contrast, Netflix took only SVOD rights on their Sundance films, allowing sales agents to sell theatrical rights at a later date. The Netflix model essentially pegs the value of a film — $5 million in the case of Tallulah — to its streaming rights, a dramatic change from the Sundance modus operandi whereby the theatrical rights trumped all else.

With their equally aggressive market moves, Netflix and Amazon forced the studios to change their game plans and buy films essentially for their streaming rights, with theatrical something of an afterthought. Paramount bought two Sundance films — the Nick Jonas-led fraternity drama Goat and Clea DuVall’s Big Chill homage The Intervention — via its Paramount Home Media label, with a theatrical distributor to be named later. Likewise, Universal bought the relationship drama Frank & Lola, but also with no intention of distributing the film itself and instead will name a third-party distributor at a later date.

The Paramount and Universal deals echo the Amazon/Netflix strategy of placing the highest value on the streaming rights. Of Amazon’s six Sundance titles, only Love & Friendship and Gleason have theatrical partners in place, Roadside Attractions and Open Road, respectively. Only Netflix’s Norman Lear (Music Box Entertainment) and Under the Shadow (Vertical Entertainment/XYZ Films) has a distributor in place to release the film in theaters.

The combined muscle of Netflix and Amazon left only a handful of buzzy films landing a traditional theatrical distribution deal, the most notable being Birth of a Nation. Sony Pictures Classics was the other big winner, nabbing four films with John Krasinski’s The Hollars, the Wall Street-set thriller Equity, the Frank Zappa documentary Eat That Question and Kazakh-language YA doc The Eagle Huntress (beating out The Weinstein Co. on the latter). In addition to Swiss Army Man, A24 locked in the coming-of-age tale Morris From America for just north of $1 million. Lionsgate/Summit picked up James Schamus’ feature directing debut, Indignation. Last year's big winner The Orchard -- with four buys out of Sundance 2015 -- acquired The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which sparked a frenzy with buyers. And IFC Films/Showtime landed perhaps the most talked-about documentary of the festival with the Anthony Weiner mea culpa Weiner.

Though the festival has ended, the deals will continue to trickle in over the next few weeks, and there are still several hot titles that remain unclaimed, including Opening Night film Other People, the Obamas' first date chronicle Southside With You, Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers and the autism doc Life, Animated as well as buzzy acting vehicles Christine, The Free World, White Girl and Certain Women. But to many festival watchers, the only question that remains is just how many of those films will be bought by Netflix or Amazon.