The Slowest Sundance Ever? How the Festival Left Buyers Cold

Sundance Film Festival Placeholder
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Although a handful of movies had their moment in the spotlight, the 2018 edition of the Sundance Film Festival received bad reviews from many of the Hollywood dealmakers who trudged up the mountains of Park City, Utah, looking to find the next indie sensation.

“Awful,” was the frank assessment of one studio executive. “Boring,” was the takeaway of another. “Who are these movies for?” griped an influential distributor.

After a week of premieres at the Eccles Theatre and the other makeshift movie palaces that line the snowy resort town, buyers complained that the movies in this year’s lineup were chronically weak, leaving them underwhelmed and frequently annoyed. That combined with the stark economic realities of the independent film business — where even great movies struggle to sell enough tickets to break even — made for a festival where the most common word heard around town was “pass.”

It might just be that, in its 35th year, Sundance is facing a mid-life crisis. When Robert Redford launched the festival, it was meant as a fringe expression of creativity for new filmmakers who hadn’t been accepted in the industry. Now, Sundance is its own cottage industry, as hotel rates here continue to soar and locals rent out their homes for the cost of a mortgage.

“It definitely has seemed slower and quieter relative to the last couple of years,” said Covert Media CEO Paul Hanson, whose company produced the Sundance drama “Ophelia.”

The biggest deal of Sundance so far hasn’t been for a movie in-competition or an Oscar-worthy drama along the lines of “Manchester by the Sea” or “Brooklyn.” It went to dark and divisive genre movie “Assassination Nation,” which premiered in the festival’s Midnight section. That $10 million-plus sale to AGBO, the Russo brothers’ new production company, and Neon, represents the only eight-figure deal of this year’s festival. Other notable pacts include Sony Pictures Classics’ $5 million pickup of the Kelly Macdonald drama “Puzzle,” Bleecker Street and 30West’s $4 million-plus purchase of U.S. rights to the Keira Knightley biopic “Colette,” and Lionsgate’s $3 million play for the opening night drama “Blindspotting.”

Some buyers were pleased with their festival experiences, arguing that there were many films of vision and quality, even if there were fewer films that had broad appeal.

“There weren’t that one or two films that galvanize a festival as there have been in previous years, but there were many good films,” said Roadside Attractions co-founder Howard Cohen. “The complexion of any festival reflects the movies, and there were many that were interesting or varied or that dealt with the zeitgeist even if there wasn’t one that made a big splash.”

The complicated math for succeeding in the independent film business continues to change. Last year, Netflix and Amazon scooped up almost every movie worth seeing — from “Mudbound” to “The Big Sick” to a series of documentaries. That led many to conclude that the two entertainment goliaths were unbeatable, driving up prices and making it impossible to compete for product here for years to come.

This year, both Netflix and Amazon have been very quiet. As Sundance draws to a close, neither has bought a single movie. Both companies have focused more heavily on internal productions and are being more conservative about their festival acquisitions. Amazon is also facing something of an existential crisis after Roy Price, the head of its entertainment division, resigned in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. Until Price’s replacement is named, it’s unclear what their movie division’s mandate is — will they make more Woody Allen fare or get into the blockbuster business?

Fox Searchlight, which in recent years has gambled big (and often lost) on titles such as “Patti Cake$,” “The Birth of a Nation,” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” has also been uncharacteristically mute. In the wake of the Disney merger, the company has instead chosen to bask in the glory of its 20 Oscar nominations; an awards haul entirely achieved from in-house projects “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Perhaps it was due to the fact that Netflix and Amazon decided to sit on the sidelines, but whatever the cause, deals took longer to close, executives say.

“There were movies that had specific buyers interested in them, but it wasn’t like five deep-pocketed buyers,” said Cohen. “It was one buyer who really loved that movie. And when that happens it’s not going sell overnight.”

There may not have been a “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The Way Way Back”-type of crowd pleaser, but some titles managed to make a critical splash. Two of the most talked-about films arrived to Park City with distribution in tow. A24 had the rights to “Eighth Grade,” about a middle school girl trying to navigate her awkward life in the age of Instagram. Amazon Studios unveiled Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” which features a tour-de-force performance by Joaquin Phoenix as cartoonist John Callahan.

“The Tale,” which drew raves for Laura Dern’s performance as a survivor of childhood abuse (based on the real-life story of its director Jennifer Fox), is expected to land a major deal. The drama feels particularly timely during the #MeToo movement.

Against the backdrop of a cold market, newcomers have had to pick up the slack. 30West, an amorphous film financier founded by former CAA agent Micah Green and entrepreneur Dan Friedkin, has been spending a great deal of money at this year’s Sundance. After arranging the deal for “Assassination Nation,” the company announced it was buying a majority stake in Neon. Flush with cash, Neon turned around and vacuumed up the likes of “Three Identical Twins” and “Monsters and Men.”

Not to be outdone, MoviePass, a Netflix-like subscription service for moviegoers, got into the distribution business. It formed an alliance with the Orchard, the indie studio behind “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “The Hero,” and nabbed the rights to the well-reviewed heist thriller “American Animals.”

“For us the question is: does the film represent a voice or viewpoint that we haven’t seen before?” said Paul Davidson, EVP of film and TV at the Orchard. “The entertainment landscape is so crowded that you need to align with a piece of content that will wake people up and get their attention.”

There’s a reason 30West, MoviePass, and other newbie distributors may have been able to compete for product. “Every year got to say who’s going to be the ‘Happy Texas’ guy,” said Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, referencing the $10 million 1999 Sundance pickup that bombed at the box office and became Exhibit A for the dangers of Festival Fever. “There’s always going to be a movie that gets overpaid for. Usually it’s somebody new that does it, because they want to make noise and tell people, ‘We got money!'”

Last year, only four Sundance acquisitions made more than $4 million at the domestic box office. That’s a paltry result for a festival that’s become synonymous with fevered bidding battles. This time, studios took pains to hedge their bets. Studios such as Bleecker Street, Roadside Attractions, 30West, Magnolia, and more formed financial partnerships with other film companies before they acquired movies. That limits their upside because they have to split their profits if the films are hits, but it also inoculates them from a true financial stinker.

Other deals have been slow to close, insiders say, because agents are trying to squeeze every last dollar they can in the haggling process. In fact, the era of the all-night bidding war in Park City may be fading. The new reality is that the bulk of Sundance business is going to be conducted after the festival goers have gone home, as distributors roam the aisles to see what products are left. Think of it as a department store after Christmas, with clearance items on display that Santa wouldn’t touch.