Sundance: Will New Streamers Create a Seller's Market?

Julia Yellow

With the arrival of Apple and Disney+, indie producers are embracing new distributors (and their deep pockets), but the all-important theatrical release remains a sticking point.

For the past few years, Apple has come to the Sundance Film Festival to wine and dine actors and filmmakers, host exclusive lounges, and stoke the mystery that has built up around the technology company within Hollywood. This year, the industry is counting on Apple finally coming to Park City with a more traditional mission — to buy films.

"We're expecting Apple to overpay because they're new to the space," says one agency source. "We're hoping that they'll be the market driver that will keep everybody else on their toes."

But Apple won't be the only streamer on the hunt for content. With the launch of new services from Disney, WarnerMedia, and NBCUniversal and the evolution of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, filmmakers face a slew of content-hungry companies proffering new or newish distribution models. Thanks to the inroads the more established streamers have made, agents say, their clients are heading to Sundance with an entirely new perspective on landing a nontraditional deal.

"Several years ago, the concern was, 'How do filmmakers buy into the whole concept of selling to a streamer?' " says Rena Ronson, partner, and co-head of UTA Independent Film Group. "Now we see how the streaming companies have taken our business to another level, proving they have a big audience, and that's the difference."

Apple is signaling its tastes and ambitions to the film industry just as it heads to Park City. This month, the company closed its first deal under a new pact with indie studio A24, a prestige project called On the Rocks that reteams the duo behind the 2003 Oscar winner Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray. "From a branding perspective, Apple wants to be the cool kids in town," says one agency source.

"My conversations with Apple [suggest] that they are going to be much more aggressive and are looking to buy a title or two," adds ICM's Jessica Lacy. "They are selective and it's a very certain type of film they are looking to acquire."

Docs, in particular, look to be coveted properties among the streamers. In addition to screening its nature documentary The Elephant Queen in the Sundance Kids section, Apple recently signed on to produce a slate of feature documentaries and docuseries with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Documentaries unit. Newcomer Disney+ is said to be keenly interested in docs and Hulu is looking to build on its track record after acquiring 2018's Sundance jury winners Minding the Gap, which scored Hulu its first Oscar nomination, and Crime + Punishment. Ahead of the festival, Hulu bought the rights to Ask Dr. Ruth, and is partnering with Magnolia on what will be the widest theatrical release to date for a Hulu doc.

After the streamers made major statements at Sundance in 2017 with Amazon's $12 million deal for The Big Sick and Netflix paying $12.5 million for Mudbound, they were quieter in Park City last year. This year Amazon, which has been rebuilding its film division since Jennifer Salke took over the studio from Roy Price in early 2018, will bring two of its own movies, the Viola Davis and Allison Janney comedy Troop Zero and the Indian romance Photograph. Netflix has turned much of its focus to original film productions, which are set to number 90 this year, and the streamer will bring five films of its own to the fest, including Chiwetel Ejiofor's directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and Dan Gilroy's art-world thriller Velvet Buzzsaw.

With other, deep-pocketed new players in the marketplace, sellers say they will be asking more from buyers, and not just in a monetary sense. Many are emboldened by Netflix's foray into small theatrical releases, particularly its heavily marketed rollout for Roma. "With the bigger titles the question is, will the streamers step up?" asks one sales agent heading to Sundance. "Getting a theatrical release is a marker of success. To a certain extent it's less about the mechanics of it — it's about the emotional sense of being a movie that deserves to be in a theater."

Tatiana Siegel contributed to this report.

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