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How Sundance Got Its Groove Back

They came. They saw. They bought a lot.

That’s more or less the story of the 2019 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. It was a return to the free-spending days of a couple of years ago, as buyers decided to ignore the cautionary tales and write checks as if “Patti Cake$” and “The Birth of a Nation” never happened. “Late Night,” Mindy Kaling’s look at diversity in writer’s rooms, picked up a massive $13 million domestic distribution deal, a record price for stateside rights. The political thriller “The Report” and heart-warming comedy “Brittany Runs A Marathon” nabbed $14 million global pacts. And “Blinded by the Light,” an ode to all things Bruce Springsteen, scored a $15 million worldwide sale to New Line, the biggest of the festival.

Distributors and agents insist that all the money sloshing around Park City isn’t attributable to festival fever, the dreaded virus that encourages studios to shell out dough for movies that appeal to an audience of only the most hardened cinephiles. The movies this year were more light-heartted, less consumed with solving the world’s ills, more interested in telling stories that will resonate beyond the arthouse.

“The festival seems to be broadening its aperture a little bit this year,” said Van Toffler, co-founder of Gunpowder & Sky. “The movies are less intense than they have been in the past where sometimes a movie would end and you’d sort of want to blow your brains out.”

That’s part of it. But the main reason that prices climbed was that Amazon hit Sundance looking to buy movies after sitting out previous festivals. Just before Hollywood descended on the idyllic Utah town, dealmakers were not confident that Amazon would make a strong showing. The streaming service had been more focused on producing its own movies in house. However, many of these Amazon productions, such as “Beautiful Boy” and “Wonder Wheel,” were duds and the studio has very little product slated for release in 2019.

With a need to plug holes in its calendar, Amazon dropped more than $41 million to buy “Late Night,” “The Report” and “Brittany Runs A Marathon.” They also came very close to landing “The Farewell,” a comedy with Awkwafina, and “Knock Down the House,” a documentary that contains behind-the-scenes footage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset congressional win. “Knock Down the House” appears to be headed to Netflix in a rumored $6 million deal.

“We’re all surprised [Amazon] came to play,” said a rival distributor, who declined to be named.

Amazon wasn’t alone in entering the fray. HBO Films, A24, and New Line also showed a renewed willingness to burn the midnight oil, engaging in all-night bidding wars for the hottest titles.

“Many of the players that were not active in acquisitions last year are now way more engaged,” said Rena Ronson, partner & co-head of UTA Independent Film Group. It’s a trend she expects will accelerate, particularly as WarnerMedia and Disney prepare to launch streaming services and Apple becomes more interested in the film business. If these companies are serious about challenging Netflix, they will need compelling movies and shows, and that may require them to hunt festivals for indie fare that will appeal to subscribers.

“All of these things lead to more competition, and with good competition, sales figures go up,” said Ronson.

Narrative films scored the splashiest deals, but studios showed a lot of interest in documentaries. That’s because some of the biggest hits to emerge from last year’s Sundance, such as the Fred Rogers’ doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and the Ruth Bader Ginsberg profile “RBG,” hailed from the non-fiction space. This year distributors rushed to find the next documentary breakout, showing a particular appetite for stories centering on outsized personalities or iconoclasts. Sony Pictures Classics picked up a pair in Matt Tyrnauer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and A.J. Eaton’s “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” Ava DuVernay’s Array bought numerous territories for “Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen,” about trailblazing indigenous filmmaker Merata Mita. The Orchard snapped up “Halston,” a look at the fashion icon who dressed everyone from Liza Minnelli to Jackie O. The prices for documentaries were more earthbound, distributors say.

“People are making deals for movies they think they can make a profit on,” said Tom Bernard, the co-head of Sony Pictures Classics. “It’s not do it to brand your company. It’s can I get this movie and make it work for my business? I don’t see crazy money happening everywhere.”

On the face of things, there aren’t many good reasons to brave the thin mountain air and to make the trek to Sundance. Bidding wars often mean that studios overpay for movies. It’s exorbitantly expensive to rent condos and demand for housing is so intense that motels are able to charge rates that would make the Ritz Carlton blush. That’s to say nothing of the special “Sundance menus” that enable Park City restaurants to gauge customers or the surge pricing that creates a financial windfall for Lyft and Uber drivers. And yet festival veterans find something addictive about navigating the snow drifts in the hopes of finding the next Steven Soderbergh or Ryan Coogler, the kind of blazing talent that seems destined to put their mark on moviemaking.

“Having done this through multiple cycles, it’s a roller coaster ride of whether its a buyers or sellers market,” said Tom Quinn, head of NEON.

The studios that leave Sundance looking like winners after scoring the buzziest films can end up being the biggest losers when those movies hit theaters — though that’s less of a concern for companies like Amazon that need to fill the streaming pipeline. The brutal reality is that audiences are fickle and most movies that debut in Sundance, even the ones that are greeted with standing ovations and rapturous reviews, are rejected by the wider public. For every “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Manchester by the Sea,” festival favorites that achieve box office and awards success, there are a slew of Sundance titles that fizzle when they are released.

“History has not been kind in terms of box office to Sundance films,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Every once in awhile someone finds gold, but when they do there are hundreds of prospectors lining up behind them.”

Remember “Happy, Texas” or “Assassination Nation”? Didn’t think so.

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