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The Sundance Gamble: From ‘Patti Cake$’ to ‘Big Sick,’ How the Top 2017 Deals Paid Off

Of the films that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival seeking distribution, “Patti Cake$” was one of the most enticing. With an effervescent, fresh face at the center in Aussie Danielle Macdonald, who plays a plus-sized aspiring rapper from New Jersey, the movie captured the enthusiasm of critics, audiences, and that ineffable festival buzz. It sparked a bidding war and emerged victorious with a massive deal — an estimated $9.5 million offer from Fox Searchlight.

Now, entering its third weekend in limited release, “Patti Cake$” risks being labeled a flop. It earned $67,599 in its opening weekend from 14 theaters, and weekend No. 2 brought in $102,258 from 59 locations. The indie release strategy is often a gradual expansion, but the poor start practically guarantees the film will end up in the red.

In “Patti Cake$’s” defense, the indie box office is awfully crowded. In 2016, 636 movies opened in 800 locations or less, accounting for 2.93% of total domestic grosses for the year, according to data provided by comScore. This year so far has seen 416 movies that fall under the 800 location count cap. Each year a few specialty films break out and go wider — festival bids like last year’s “Moonlight,” or smaller films that find a passionate following like this summer’s “The Big Sick” — but the point remains that a large number of movies are left scrambling for an ever shrinking slice of the pie.

“It’s sort of like craft beer,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst as comScore. “There’s a million of them but they only represent a small percentage of the market.”

This follows a decade or so of shifting tides. Most specialty arms of major studios have shuttered, new aggressive players like A24, Annapurna, and Neon have stepped in, while Netflix and Amazon are jacking up acquisition costs with seemingly bottomless pockets. That was the backdrop for “The Birth of a Nation’s” record-breaking $17.5 million Fox Searchlight acquisition last year. That film went on to tank at the box office, though its launch was overshadowed by reports that its director and star Nate Parker had been accused of rape while he was in college. Controversy, rather than to market forces, hobbled the picture.

Still, at what point are these increasingly expensive festival bidding wars no longer worth the risk?

Below, Variety breaks down how this year’s Sundance acquisitions have fared so far, and looks ahead to those that have yet to be released.

1. The Quantifiable

Amazon got its money’s worth from “The Big Sick.” The romantic comedy about a standup comic (Kumail Nanjiani, who also co-wrote) who has to take care of his comatose girlfriend sold for $12 million, the second-biggest deal of the festival. Distributed by Lionsgate, the picture became an art house breakout, grossing nearly $40 million domestically and earning some of the year’s best reviews.

But “The Big Sick” was the exception, not the rule. “Patti Cake$” was a Sundance favorite, but couldn’t translate those festival raves into ticket sales. Other purchases such as “Brigsby Bear,” Sony Pictures Classics’ $5 million pickup and “Step,” a documentary about inner-city step dancers that sold to Fox Searchlight for $4 million, underwhelmed. “Brigsby Bear” has grossed $459,000 and “Step” is languishing at just under $1 million.

Neon’s “Ingrid Goes West,” an Aubrey Plaza comedy about Instagram stalking, is off to a fairly slow start. The film has earned $1.3 million in ticket sales in three weeks after selling for roughly $3 million. Plaza also appears in another Sundance comedy, “The Little Hours,” which has made $1.6 million. That’s a lackluster result considering it was purchased by Gunpowder & Sky for the low seven figures.

“The Hero,” a Sam Elliott showpiece that the Orchard bought for just under $3 million, has earned a decent $4 million. That ranks as the festival’s third highest-grossing acquisition.

Sometimes playing the long game actually pays off. “Wind River,” a taut thriller with Jeremy Renner, premiered at Sundance, and is shaping up to be a hit. It has earned $11.4 million in four weeks of release. However, the Weinstein Company picked up the film at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, instead of striking in the midst of Sundance Festival frenzy.

2. The Unknowable

Here’s where things get dicier. Neither Netflix nor Amazon depend solely on box office to justify their investments in content. The former makes its money through subscriptions, and its films debut on its streaming service with only a minimal theatrical release. The latter does release movies in theaters, but its central business is screening them on its Prime service as an inducement for customers to pay for the subscription shipping service.

Consequently, the $8 million that Netflix shelled out for “To the Bone,” a drama about eating disorders, may seem extravagant. Yet the service doesn’t provide streaming data, so it’s impossible to know how popular the film was with customers.

Likewise, “Landline,” an Amazon purchase, may seem like a disappointment given its $897,212 gross. But any losses the company might see are mitigated by the benefits of expanding its library of content.

Then there are a number of pickups that are harder to assess because sales agents and the studios themselves did an effective job of guarding their sales price. On paper, it seems as though Roadside Attractions’ “Beatriz at Dinner” has performed well this summer. The dramedy with Salma Hayek has grossed an impressive $7 million. That said, it’s hard to know what kind of profit Roadside will make, because it’s unclear how much it paid for the film.

A24’s “A Ghost Story” and Neon’s “Beach Rats” have been more modest performers, earning $1.7 million and $46,451, respectively. Both are still in theaters, so they have time to pad their grosses. But, again, without knowing the sales price, it’s hard to know if they’ll end their runs in the red or the black.

3. The Upcoming

Some of the most warmly received Sundance releases still haven’t been unveiled for the general public. Netflix has Oscar aspirations for “Mudbound,” a story of segregation in the South that gets a limited theatrical run and will start streaming on the service on Nov. 17. If the film earns nominations for best picture or picks up a director nod for Dee Rees, then the $12.5 million the company paid for the movie will have been worth it. A date with the Oscars would mark a first for Netflix, which has been largely shut out of major film categories, save for its documentaries.

If “Mudbound” resonates with Oscar voters, it could find itself facing off against “Call Me by Your Name,” a romantic drama that earned raves for Timothée Chalamet’s star turn as a young man in love with a cocky graduate student (Armie Hammer). Sony Pictures Classics snagged the film before Sundance even started, and will oversee the rollout starting on Nov. 24.

Their stories will be written in the heat of awards season.

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