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Sundance: Changing of the Guard Opens Door for Forward-Thinking Players

Micah Green is no stranger to the marathon deal-making frenzy that gives the Sundance Film Festival its energy and excitement.

The former CAA agent spent two decades on the front lines of the indie film gathering, hammering out distribution deals for the likes of “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” This year, Green’s flying out to Utah on a different mission. Last spring, he co-founded 30West with entrepreneur and producer Dan Friedkin. The 10-person company buys films, sells them and invests in them at various stages of production. As more and more independent movies are consigned to on-demand debuts or forced to forgo a stint in cinemas, 30West wants to fill a vacuum.

“It remains a buyer’s market for theatrical independent films,” said Green. “Just look at [the Toronto Film Festival]. Only a handful of the promising films that premiered there walked away with a legitimate theatrical release commitment.”

Green’s company is a signal of the tectonic shifts rippling across the landscape of the independent film business. Streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon are upending the way movies are viewed and distributed, while an old order, once ruled by the likes of the Weinstein Co. and Focus Features, is being reconstituted.

“There’s a changing of the guard going on,” said Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics. “Everything is re-forming.”

In an earlier era, the Weinstein Co. could be counted on to make the biggest bids, with hard-charging founder Harvey Weinstein pulling out all the stops to nab the festival’s splashiest debuts. Those days are gone — in large part because Weinstein has been drummed out of Hollywood by a sexual abuse scandal, leaving his company in tatters. But his demise and that of his company were in the works before the headlines hit, their fade-out accelerated by financial woes and the entry of Netflix, Amazon, Apple and other deep-pocketed tech players, who have become goliaths of the indie world.

“Netflix and other streaming services have been a boon to the indie space in terms of pricing, but it feels like the companies under them are getting squeezed,” said Marc Simon, a partner at Fox Rothschild who has advised many filmmakers on distribution deals.

In response, indie film players are overhauling their strategies and trying to figure out fresh ways to remain competitive. Some see opportunity in the tumult. New entrant Neon, for instance, made a splash at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival by snatching “I, Tonya,” a biopic about Tonya Harding, from Netflix by promising a robust theatrical release. Netflix offered more money, but actress Margot Robbie didn’t want the movie to debut on the streaming service at the same time it opened in theaters.

And Good Deed Entertainment has been stressing its small size as a way to differentiate itself from companies such as Netflix that field dozens of movies a year. The indie label moved into self-distribution in 2017 and generated attention with “Loving Vincent,” an animated film about Vincent van Gogh that went on to gross an impressive $20 million globally.

“We see ourself as an alternative to some of the larger players,” said Kristin Harris, vice president of acquisitions and distribution at Good Deed. “We’re trying to be a boutique operation that applies an individualized strategy to each of the films we release.”

That’s a smart approach, argued David Linde, CEO of Participant Media, the maker of “An Inconvenient Truth” and its sequel. He believes that indie studios need to develop a certain area of expertise to survive, be that a particular talent with certain genres or a proven ability to reach a particular audience. As an example of what’s working, he points to Bleecker Street, which has developed a niche for appealing to older crowds with the likes of “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and A24, which has become a home for edgy fare such as last year’s Oscar winner “Moonlight,” “Ex Machina” and current awards darling “Lady Bird.”

Margot Robbie, who stars in and produced “I, Tonya,” sold the film to Neon for less money than Netflix was offering in order to assure the picture an exclusive theatrical window.

“What you’re seeing is the importance of specialization in distribution,” said Linde. “Companies are doing well by focusing on finding films that align with what they do well, and how they see themselves.”

Linde, Harris and other executives will endure the thin mountain air in the hopes of finding the next “The Big Sick” or “Brooklyn,” films of substance and quality that are able to break out of the art house and enter the mainstream. Both of those movies received rapturous receptions when they debuted at Sundance, ultimately going on to achieve commercial success and awards recognition. But not every film is so lucky. “Patti Cake$,” “Step” and “Brigsby Bear” were all popular with Sundance crowds but virtually ignored by the general public when they opened in theaters.

Bill Bromiley, president of Saban Films, is pleased at how this year’s festival is shaping up, noting that the movies debuting are more accessible than those of previous Sundances. “It seems a lot busier this year, and the films seem more commercial,” he said.

On paper, there are a number of films that seem likely to interest buyers. The list includes “Colette,” a historical biopic with Keira Knightley as the famed French novelist; “Monsters and Men,” a drama about police brutality that features John David Washington (son of Denzel); “Wildlife,” a coming-of-age story that marks the directorial debut of Paul Dano; and “The Catcher Was a Spy,” a historical thriller with Paul Rudd.

However, these projects may have more trouble generating bidding wars. For one thing, many studios have shifted their strategies. Instead of hitting festivals and looking to fill out their slates with acquired films, they’re getting involved at the script stage.

Amazon, for instance, is producing more films internally. It will use Sundance to premiere four pictures that it got involved with early in their development. In the past, Amazon has shown a willingness to write big checks, plunking down $12 million for “The Big Sick” and $10 million for “Manchester by the Sea.” This year, sales agents and rival studios wonder if the company will be as aggressive.

By the same token, Fox Searchlight was badly burned by its experiences at Sundance. The indie label bet on “The Birth of a Nation” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” only to see them wither and die at the box office. In contrast, the studio fielded two major hits this year with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Shape of Water,” both of which it developed and produced internally. Even if the company didn’t have empirical evidence of the dangers of overpaying at Sundance, larger corporate concerns may limit its activity. Most of Searchlight’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, could soon belong to Disney if the government approves a sale, leaving the indie studio’s future uncertain.

The fate of Fox Searchlight is not the only big question looming over Park City. Digital technology has made content cheaper to produce than ever, and the rise of digital platforms has led to a manifold increase in the number of avenues for distributing movies. There’s a bigger buffet of programming available to viewers, but it’s not clear how much longer they’ll be willing to pony up to see a film in theaters when they can watch hours of content for a minor fee on Hulu or Netflix. In this froth of change, indie players believe that quality is still the most important competitive advantage.

“You could buy a painting from your neighbor, or you could buy a painting by Picasso,” said Bernard. “There’s a difference. It’s the artistic abilities of the people who are making the movies that will keep people watching them.”

Dave McNary contributed to this report.

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