Studios seemingly threw caution to the wind at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, shelling out top dollar in hopes of finding the next indie sensation. A few Hollywood companies saw those shopping sprees pay off, while most will likely be feeling buyer’s remorse.
Amazon Studios was among the big spenders, unloading nearly $41 million at the 2019 festival, a large part of which was on the comedy “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” The feel-good film, which debuted in five theaters last weekend with a solid $175,696, is the latest Sundance favorite hoping to turn rave reviews into cold hard cash.
Amazon is pacing itself with “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” allotting more than a month before taking the film nationwide in an effort to avoid the same fate as fellow festival purchase “Late Night.” Despite critical praise, the Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson-led comedy fizzled at the box office with $15 million, only $2 million more than Amazon paid for the movie.
That steady pace could benefit “Brittany” in the long run. But if it fails to pay off, “Brittany” could join the string of festival flops that have struggled at the box office. Theatrical tides are shifting, and this year indie movies are the first to feel the inexorable pull of changing tastes. Not all Sundance acquisitions have landed in theaters yet, but over the course of a lackluster summer, the hits have been few and far between.
Of the films that were seeking distribution, A24’s “The Farewell” has been the most widely embraced by the general public. The comedic drama — written and directed by Lulu Wang and starring Awkwafina — sparked a bidding war among buyers at Sundance before A24 nabbed it for around $6 million. After a profitable platform release, one that started in four theaters before ramping up its footprint as word of mouth grew, “The Farewell” has earned $14.5 million, an impressive result for a movie that’s mostly subtitled.
But this year, many Sundance shoppers have struggled to successfully replicate that method. Earlier in August, New Line hit the wrong notes with “Blinded by the Light,” a crowd-pleaser set to Bruce Springsteen tunes that rocked critics in Park City. That reception encouraged the Warner Bros. label to spend $15 million on the musical drama — a title decidedly out of its wheelhouse of low-budget horror flicks and romantic comedies. The effort was for naught. “Blinded by the Light” debuted nationwide with a disappointing $4 million and has since collected $8 million.
“You’re seeing pretty clearly that movies coming out of the festivals are really being challenged,” Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein told Variety after the film’s launch on Aug. 18. “Unfortunately, audiences are spending money on the bigger spectacle films. The smaller niche movies are having a harder time finding their way when competition from content providers is making it harder to break through with an audience.”
Beyond moviegoers’ apathy for smaller films, “Blinded by the Light” highlights another potentially problematic trend. The bidding wars that have become synonymous with Sundance are driving up prices, causing studios to grossly overpay for movies. Hollywood companies are forced to launch a movie nationwide if they want to make their money back, which puts a lot of added pressure on films that might not have time to benefit from mounting buzz.
“That’s the biggest issue facing companies, which are buying movies at too high of a price in order to lock down filmmaker relations,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “You’re stuck chasing the profits that are never going to come. It’s a really expensive lesson being learned right now.”
Documentaries haven’t repeated last year’s successes either. Three nonfiction films that premiered at Sundance — “RBG,” “Three Identical Strangers” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — all surpassed double digits at the box office, rarefied territory for documentaries. That kind of track record made docs the hot buy at the 2019 festival.
So far, only Neon’s “Apollo 11,” a look at the historic 1969 moon landing, has come close to matching those earnings, reaching $9 million in ticket sales. Other documentaries have mostly fallen flat. “Honeyland,” a nature film about the art of beekeeping from the same studio, has made $289,326 after five weeks in limited release. Sony Pictures Classics’ “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” an acclaimed look at the legendary musician, collected $459,880 over the same time frame. Magnolia’s “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” and Hulu’s “Ask Dr. Ruth” ran out of steam at $807,000 and $297,195, respectively.
Of course, theatrical winnings is no longer a question for a significant segment of titles that sell at festivals. The buzzy Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez documentary “Knock Down the House” went straight to Netflix. Similarly, Michael Jackson exposé “Leaving Neverland” sold to HBO, which broadcast it in two parts and made headlines worldwide.
But while titles might make waves in the media, it’s difficult to gauge their triumphs on streaming platforms. Netflix also bought “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” a drama from the perspective of Ted Bundy’s girlfriend, for a reported $8 million, but it’s not clear yet whether the streamer will mount an awards push. Amazon’s “The Report” likely won’t be breaking any box office records, since it will land on Prime Video two weeks after it opens in theaters. That might not matter, because streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are more concerned with expanding their content library and building buzz around their services than with finding the next blockbuster.
There are still a handful of Sundance leftovers that have yet to be seen by mainstream audiences. In November, Amazon is unveiling “Honey Boy,” a coming-of-age drama that’s based on Shia LaBeouf’s childhood. Unlike the festival films that failed to serve as counterprogramming in the midst of summer, “Honey Boy” could have an open runway ahead of the holidays.
“This summer, counterprogramming didn’t always work,” Dergarabedian said. “There’s going to be a lot of re-strategizing. We’re in a time of flux, and this is another area we are going to see changes.”