Sundance Preview: Why It Remains Prime
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

With a week to go before Sundance officially starts, Netflix swooped in to nab global streaming rights to “Tallulah,” a dramatic comedy that reunites “Juno” stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney.

The deal, wrapped up covertly, swiftly and with a big price tag, signifies the dramatic changes roiling the independent film industry.

Consequently, Sundance and other film markets have become a tale of two competing business models, and the story doesn’t always have a happy ending.

“There’s been an insane influx of money,” says Eamonn Bowles, CEO of Magnolia Pictures. “These bidding wars for high-ticket items, where you’re spending lots of money and hoping for a big breakout hit, is one of the worst business strategies. For every ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ there are five instances of ‘Happy, Texas,’ ” he adds. Both films took Sundance by storm, but the former turned into an Oscar-winning hit, and the latter, a 1999 comedy, collapsed at the box office.

It was a lesson that somehow was lost on many who trudged up to Park City last year. “Dope,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “The D Train” and “Mistress America” were each acquired for hefty sums, and received warm receptions from Sundance crowds, but flopped when they were presented to the general public. Of the films that inspired heated bidding wars, only “Brooklyn,” the Oscar-nominated romance about an Irish immigrant, reaped a financial reward.

“There are so many new players with serious money,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Tom Bernard. “And there are more options to get your movie seen than ever before. It used to be that filmmakers could maybe get theatrical distribution or their movie went nowhere or maybe straight to DVD.”

Netflix, Amazon and other digital buyers aren’t the only well-capitalized companies willing to pay top dollar for arthouse films. And that’s good news for an indie market in flux. Relativity Media, for instance, is still in the throes of bankruptcy; and the Weinstein Co. plans to scale down the number of films it releases each year, and focus more on its television operations. At past Sundance festivals, Harvey Weinstein could be counted on to leave the snow-covered gathering with at least one or two high-profile acquisitions in tow.

That may not be the case this year, but other well-heeled companies are expected to fill the gap. Broad Green (backed by hedge fund billionaire Gabriel Hammond and his brother Daniel), Bleecker Street (financed by 5-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava) and the Orchard, a music and media company that made a splash at last year’s edition of the festival by picking up “The Overnight” and “Cartel Land,” are all on the prowl for product.

“We are going to be as competitive as we were last year,” says Paul Davidson, senior vice president of film and TV at the Orchard. “We hope to come out of Sundance with a good selection of titles to fill our slate.”

The advent of digital technology has not only expanded the ways movies can find an audience, it has also made films cheaper than ever to produce. For instance, “Tangerine,” a look at transgender prostitutes that was one of the breakout hits at the last Sundance, was shot using an iPhone; that would not have seemed possible a decade ago, but the technology has now spawned film festivals of its own.

But there are downsides to these new forms of distribution, and to an arthouse scene that has suddenly piqued the interest of digital powerhouses such as Netflix and Amazon, which are eager for original content that can help attract subscribers. The companies are able to pay top dollar for films that are quirky and edgy, without worrying about their box office prospects. Success for a dark drama like Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation” or a polemical comedy such as Amazon’s “Chi-Raq” is measured in streams and new subscribers, not ticket sales. That’s not the case for smaller indie distributors, whose fortunes can rise or fall with each new release. A box office disaster can spell the end of the line for some players.

It’s not just the bevy of new buyers that’s causing prices to escalate. Executives touch down in Utah hoping to fall in love with a film, and the combination of attributes that makes Sundance such an appealing place — its remote location and the thousands of movie lovers who crowd into the school auditoriums, libraries and gymnasiums that are transformed into makeshift theaters eager to discover the next Quentin Tarantino or Richard Linklater — results in an atmosphere where a decent picture can be mistaken for a great one.

“It’s tricky,” says Andrew Karpen, CEO of Bleecker Street. “People are there to enjoy films. They’re not looking at these movies in the context of normal life, where you have your regular job and you’re debating about whether or not you want to sit in your home and stream a movie, or go to a theater.”

Last year’s market was one of the hottest in years, with several films drawing multimillion-dollar commitments, but there seemed to be something of a hangover at subsequent markets. The pace of buying at the Toronto Film Festival, for instance, was glacial — some films are still searching for distributors, and others had to wait weeks or months for pacts to close.

Fears about the long-term viability of the indie scene were exacerbated last fall, as a series of movies aimed at sophisticated audiences cannibalized each other at multiplexes. In short order, “Truth,” a look at the fall-out after “60 Minutes” coverage of George W. Bush’s military service, starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford; “Burnt,” a Bradley Cooper comedy about a chef; and “Suffragette,” a drama about the early days of the women’s rights movement, dramatically underperformed.

But distributors and sales agents believe that any lingering sense of doom and gloom will dissipate, and note that the year was not without its arthouse breakouts. Films such as “Mr. Holmes,” “Woman in Gold,” “Spotlight,” “A Walk in the Woods” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” all managed to find an audience, despite stiff competition from major studio releases boasting special effects and costumed heroes.

The pedigree of a top festival helps. “A plethora of independent films get made every year,” says Lucy Barzun Donnelly, an executive producer on “Maggie’s Plan,” the Rebecca Miller drama that screens at this year’s festival. “Having the imprimatur of Sundance lets people know a film is one of the good ones. It sets it apart.”

On paper, this year’s crop of titles includes fewer overtly commercial entries, and some of the buzzier premieres, such as “Captain Fantastic,” a drama about a devoted father (Viggo Mortensen) grappling with a family tragedy, and “Sing Street,” the story of a Dublin boy band from “Begin Again” director John Carney, already have distributors. There are fewer star-driven projects than in prior festivals, and many films don’t have easily definable audiences.

That said, several Sundance titles already are drawing interest from buyers, among them “Indignation,” an adaptation of Philip Roth’s acclaimed novel of the same name with Logan Lerman, and the directing debut of Focus Features founder James Schamus; “Manchester by the Sea,” a look at life in a New England town from “You Can Count on Me’s” Kenneth Lonergan; and “The Birth of a Nation,” a drama about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. Some of these could go on to score rich deals, or they could only end up attracting nibbles from buyers. After all, distributors note, the list is dynamic, with hot projects rising and falling based on their reception from festival crowds.

“The strength or weakness of the festival is less a reaction to the performance of last year’s movies than it is a reaction to the movies themselves,” says Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions. “If the festival has a movie like ‘Brooklyn,’ that’s destined to work, it will create a hot market.”

Perhaps, as in previous editions, the lasting legacy of this year’s Sundance won’t be based on the films it premieres. It’s the directors, screenwriters and actors who get their first flash of public exposure. It’s the reputation it enjoys as the place where stars like Jennifer Lawrence burst onto the scene with “Winter’s Bone,” or directors like Colin Trevorrow and Ryan Coogler demonstrated their mastery of visual storytelling in “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Fruitvale Station.” In each case, these young talents were embraced by the studio system, injecting fresh energy into major franchise films and big-budget productions.

“Sundance is always about discovery,” says John Cooper, the festival’s director. “People come here looking for the next generation of directors and actors.”

That’s why executives brave the thin mountain air, the snow drifts and the Dramamine-inducing shuttle system. Because nothing beats the thrill of finding the next big thing.

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