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Sundance 2017: Why the Market Is Still Hot

Sundance 2017
Courtesy of Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival, Hollywood’s annual marathon of all-night bidding and impulse buying, kicks off Jan. 19, but credit cards were being thrown around before agents even bought their boots for the snowy mountains of Park City.

Sony Pictures Classics has already scooped up global rights for the gay love story “Call Me by Your Name” for close to $6 million. A24 took “A Ghost Story,” a spooky tale that reteams director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Not to be left out, Netflix continued its recent acquisitions spree with the documentary “Casting JonBenet,” about the 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant who was murdered in 1996.

The trio of deals, while just the tip of the iceberg, suggests a robust market for Sundance, as distributors are eager to seize on strong material early to avoid frenzied bidding wars. Netflix and Amazon Studios, as well as stalwarts like SPC, Fox Searchlight, and Focus Features, are just a few of the hungry bidders bracing themselves to hit the screenings.

There are other contenders, too. Several emerging powerhouses could use this year’s festival as a coming-out-party for their big-screen ambitions, such as Hulu, Apple TV, Vimeo, and Gunpowder, the new digital company from former Viacom executive Van Toffler.

“The digital platforms are expanding, and we will see a number of new players in the marketplace,” says Rena Ronson, head of UTA Independent Film Group. “From a sales and distribution perspective, that’s always healthy.”

Several companies are moving into distributing their own films, among them Annapurna, the producer of “20th Century Women” and “The Master,” and Neon, the newly named company from Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League and former Radius-TWC chief Tom Quinn. And, finally, unexpected bedfellows could emerge. In this scenario, there could be a union in which a traditional player, like Harvey Weinstein, hitches a wagon to overseas money — particularly of the Chinese variety. “It’s the buyers you know and the buyer you don’t know,” one agent notes.

Among the films in contention, there are a number that could become the “Manchester by the Sea” of Sundance 2017. “Yellow Birds,” a war drama with Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan; “Brigsby Bear,” a surrealist comedy with Claire Danes and Mark Hamill; “City of Ghosts,” a documentary about ISIS; “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy with Kumail Nanjiani; and “The Polka King,” a true-crime comedy with Jack Black, are generating interest from bidders.

“On paper, it’s a compelling slate of films,” says Paul Davidson, executive vice president of film and TV at The Orchard. “You’ve got some cast-driven films and narratives that feel big in size and scope.”

This year’s parties and premieres will need to cede the stage to several major interruptions. The inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20 will be followed the next day by a women’s march led by Chelsea Handler through the streets of Park City. The Oscar nominations are scheduled for Jan. 24.

With all the enthusiastic shoppers, there’s still the unknown factor. Sometimes a rapturous reception in Park City doesn’t translate to tickets sales in the real world — just ask the studios that ponied up millions for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Dope,” and “Hamlet 2.”

“I always call it the ‘Happy, Texas’ theory,” says SPC co-founder Tom Bernard, referencing an infamous late-’90s bomb. “Every year there’s some movie that studios spend an insane amount of money for that doesn’t work.”

Last year, Fox Searchlight shattered records, plopping down $17.5 million for Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation.” However, the movie tanked at the box office after details emerged that Parker had been tried in college of raping a classmate. Although he was acquitted, there was a media firestorm, one that intensified after reports that the alleged victim had committed suicide. But even without the scandal, “The Birth of a Nation” might have fizzled.

“It’s always really hard to gauge whether or not an indie film is going to be a huge success,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “For a drama to work, you have to get great press, great reviews, and great word-of-mouth, and even with all of those things, there’s no guarantee you’ll cross over from the art house to the multiplexes.”

Sundance remains a talent incubator. Steven Soderbergh, Ryan Coogler, Jennifer Lawrence and Ryan Gosling are just a few of the major creative forces who first announced themselves at the festival.

“Sundance is all about discoveries,” says John Sloss, a sales agent and the founder of Cinetic Media. “That’s its very potent and attractive allure.”

As the contours of the indie film business mutate and shift, studios and filmmakers are showing greater willingness to experiment with distribution models. Focus Features is considering doing more day-and-date releases through its Focus World label, and Fox Searchlight may begin to offer some smaller films simultaneously in theaters and on demand, according to sources.

It’s all part of a blurring of the borders between the digital, small-screen, and theatrical worlds. Take Awesomeness Films: The company built up a youth following by creating shareable, clickable content and releasing it on YouTube. Now it has moved into feature films and will be at this year’s Sundance debuting “Before I Fall,” an adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s best-selling novel.

“Content is content in 2017,” says Awesomeness Films president Matt Kaplan. “Whether you’re making a film for Netflix or doing a TV show that’s going to get watched on a cellphone, it’s all about making quality content and finding the most organic way to distribute it.”