Why Movie Buyers Keep Betting Wrong at Sundance

llustration by Jason Ford

After years of shelling out millions for mega-hyped titles that fizzled at the box office (remember 'Patti Cake$'?), cautious Park City dealmakers are less willing to spend big on that elusive breakout hit: "They don't come along every year."

Five years ago, an unknown Damien Chazelle brought his second feature, Whiplash, to Sundance. With A24 and Roadside Attractions chasing, Sony Pictures Classics swooped in and bought North American rights to the drama about a high school drummer and his merciless band teacher for $2.5 million. But when the dust settled on Sundance 2014, Whiplash didn't represent the top price tag. That distinction went to the Bill Hader-Kristen Wiig drama The Skeleton Twins, whose worldwide rights sold to Roadside Attractions for $3.5 million. Nevertheless, when the postmortem on the 2014 market was complete, Whiplash wound up as the top box office earner, with $49 million worldwide versus Skeleton Twins' $5.3 million.

The 2014 chapter was a sign of things to come, with deep-pocketed streamers only making the market more fraught by jacking up prices. Over the past five years, the market's highest-priced acquisition only twice aligned with the top Sundance box office earner: 2015's Brooklyn (Fox Searchlight paid $9 million for worldwide rights en route to a $62 million global haul) and 2017's The Big Sick (Amazon shelled out $12.5 million for the film, which ultimately earned $56 million). Such films as 2016's The Birth of a Nation ($17.5 million, Fox Searchlight) and 2018's Assassination Nation ($10 million, Neon) marked the top sale of their respective markets. But they were each beaten at the box office by lower-priced acquisitions — 2016's Manchester by the Sea with $79 million worldwide (Amazon) and 2018's thriller Searching with $75 million worldwide (Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions).

Given that track record, it's clear that the buyer who makes the biggest play doesn't always reap the biggest rewards.

"It never works like that," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. "You can count on your hand how many movies have blown out of Sundance and become that monster hit — the Little Miss Sunshine kind of movies. They don't come along even every year."

In fact, the market is littered with expensive duds, including 2008's Hamlet 2 ($10 million to Focus) and 2015's Dope ($7 million to Open Road with an expensive wide-release commitment). As one of the biggest spenders, Searchlight has felt the market extremes perhaps more profoundly than other buyers, with highs like Brooklyn offsetting the pricey lows like 2015's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and 2017's Patti Cake$. The former, a three-hanky drama, sold for $7 million and earned only $9 million worldwide, while the latter, about a suburban rapper, sold for $10 million in Park City but earned an abysmal $1.5 million worldwide.

Last year proved that high-altitude hype doesn't always translate into box office dollars. Upstart Neon broke the bank in order to buy the controversial Assassination Nation, which earned just $2 million after opening in September. One day later, the edgy label that released I, Tonya quietly acquired the triplets-separated-at-birth doc Three Identical Strangers for modest mid-six figures. That film went on to earn a stellar $12.3 million domestically.

"In mapping out our box office for the Sundance acquisitions, we managed to hit our overall target, just not the way we'd planned," says Neon's Tom Quinn. "Our slate is eclectic and adventurous enough that it affords the kind of successes you can't always predict."

While an unlikely nonfiction hit helped compensate for Neon's narrative miss in 2018, spending big on a doc isn't a surefire strategy. In 2017, Fox Searchlight shelled out $4 million for the dance-themed doc Step, with ambitious plans for a narrative remake. The film landed in theaters with a thud later that year, earning just $1.2 million. But that same year, Netflix got what it paid for when it plunked down a staggering $5 million for the Russian doping doc Icarus. Although Netflix's business model doesn't rely on box office tallies, the streamer scored the coveted best documentary Oscar with Icarus.

"Over the past five years or so, Sundance docs have performed in a range that goes from doing quite well to deeply disappointing," says Submarine's Josh Braun, who sold Three Identical Strangers. "But what really matters is what happened in the last 12 months, and the perception is now firmly that the business these films generated is not just a momentary deviation from the norm."

It remains to be seen if doc prices will soar at this Sundance. But whether it's documentaries or narrative features, buyers may do well staying in the middle.

"The Sundance market has been generally consistent over the past five years, especially when you're looking at the films in the $2 million to $4 million range," says The Orchard's Paul Davidson. "There will always be big-price outliers, but that's where you see the biggest box office fluctuations."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.