To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. On one hand, there were record-breaking deals — such as the $17.5 million Fox Searchlight forked over for “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker’s retelling of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner; and the $10 million that Amazon Studios splurged on “Manchester by the Sea,” Kenneth Lonergan’s drama about a janitor (Casey Affleck) returning home after a family tragedy.
But while serious money was spent in Park City, it also created an “Upstairs Downstairs” effect, in part because the deep-pocketed bids from Netflix and Amazon contrasted with purse-tightening by traditional distributors. The Sundance market might look healthy, but only a select few are benefiting from the shopping sprees led by the new players. As agents scrambled to drive prices up, buyers grumbled that even mediocre movies were asking for way too much.
That may explain why, a week into Sundance, there are still a considerable number of films up for grabs: including the opening night cancer dramedy “Other People,” starring Molly Shannon; the Rebecca Hall journalism drama “Christine,” which received strong reviews; and the John Krasinski comedy “The Hollers,” starring Anna Kendrick. And sales have been scarcer among Sundance’s smaller offerings. The only deal among films in the festival’s “Next” competition has been for “Sleight” — a thriller about a street magician — to Blumhouse and WWE Studios.
The independent movie business finds itself in a remarkable state of flux. Ten years ago, there were two options for filmmakers: a theatrical release or a straight to video debut, which was the kiss of death. Now, distribution platforms are ever expanding and the myriad of options available mirrors shopping at Costco. There’s VOD services, streaming launches and some hodgepodge combination of theatrical release and a simultaneous launch across home entertainment platforms. More confusing still, Netflix grabbed worldwide streaming rights to some of the buzziest projects at the festival — “Tallulah,” “The Fundamentals of Caring” and “Under the Shadow” — before most corporate jets had touched down in Utah.
Yes, theatrical rights to these projects are available. But the question remains: are they even desirable when an important revenue stream is no longer available to the buyer?
Of course, agents are still haggling for deals for many of the titles that debuted at Sundance. Just because a pact hasn’t been announced yet, it doesn’t mean there aren’t offers on the table. However, the complicated nature of these deals now reflects a new reality for film festivals. All-night bidding wars, such as the one witnessed for “The Birth of a Nation,” are becoming rarer and limited to a few deep-pocketed players. To get a seat at the table with Parker, studios had to commit to a $12 million offer, a figure that would be unimaginable, even ruinous, for companies such as Sony Pictures Classics, A24 and other well-respected brands.
The field of play is changing too. In the old days, Harvey Weinstein — at Miramax or the Weinstein Company — was the John D. Rockefeller of Park City. Armed with a checkbook, he could blow competitors out of the water, charming directors into siding with his team. But in today’s market, with Netflix and Amazon willing to spend lavishly to lock up hot titles and even major studios such as Paramount and Sony entering the fray, the Weinstein Company finds itself in the unusual position of playing the underdog. So far, Weinstein hasn’t picked up a single project from Park City.
As for the films themselves, many buyers griped about the feast or famine nature of the offerings. The two top selling titles were rapturously received, more so than any other film that premiered here last year (which cast a shadow over Park City, a reminder of the so-called “Sundance bubble” that doesn’t translate to box office — see “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” or “Dope”). Many of the remaining features were less impressive, and in today’s market, where reviews are broadcast in real time via Twitter, the demand for quality is greater.
Some executives complained that many films felt like parodies of a Sundance indie — themes such as the dead (or dying) parent or the child who didn’t fit into a family were heavily represented. Other times, buyers expressed frustration that movies felt more like the pilot of an HBO series than something that would convince consumers to get off their couches and go to the movies.
In a business that’s dominated by sequels, reboots and comic book tentpoles, Sundance has always prided itself on valuing little treasures and hidden gems. But some of these stories felt too small, their concerns too petty or solipsistic, to make a big splash in an indie market that’s struggling to adapt to consumers. If Sundance 2016 played out like an episode of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” there were fewer “haves” than “have nots.”