×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More Film

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    UPDATED with statements from John Singleton’s family and FX Networks John Singleton, the Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow

    'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow Easter Weekend at the Box Office

    New Line’s horror pic “The Curse of La Llorona” will summon a solid $25 million debut at the domestic box office, leading a quiet Easter weekend before Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters on April 26. The James Wan-produced “La Llorona,” playing in 3,372 theaters, was a hit with hispanic audiences, who accounted for nearly 50% [...]

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content