After almost two years of movie theaters being partially or completely closed, streaming services are poised to have their biggest moment yet. The 2022 Sundance film festival is one of the first major festivals where a steadily-growing number of services can test their muscle, and their money, not just against standard bearers of distribution but against tradition distribution methods themselves.
“Everyone has gotten incredibly used to the idea of watching movies that are first-run on streaming without any kind of stigma,” Picturestart founder and CEO Erik Feig says. “Now it’s all about different forms of distribution as they ultimately make sense for the audience, because the consumer’s going to dictate how and when they want to watch something.”
Brian Beckmann, CFO of Arclight Films, says programming at Sundance has always been tailored for the specificity that streaming services provide for their subscribers.
“Sundance has become much more of a streamer market than any of the other traditional international markets,” Beckmann says. “These projects normally, probably wouldn’t find a very big home with many of the smaller arthouse distributors, because they don’t have that type of pipeline to get it out there such as a Hulu or a Netflix. You’re seeing these higher-quality films that the streamers are looking for, and they’re all coordinated in one singular spot, especially for North America.”
Earlier in 2021, Nielsen reported that consumers have as many as 200 streaming services to choose from. Obviously not all of those will be at Sundance, but companies that are will be buying content as much to shore up their identities as their libraries.
“I’d love to find a film that Discovery Plus and Mubi are both bidding against — and that is a possibility,” says Liesl Copland, Participant’s executive vice president, content and platform strategy. “But it’s about [streaming services] reaching audiences that they see are engaged with what they do. They really need that content to be able to gather eyeballs and eventize their platforms at home and really pull new audiences towards them.”
IFC Films president Arianna Bocco says her team is looking to acquire titles at the festival, but expects competition to be fierce, especially since the pandemic may have limited the number of films that could be finished in time to be shown.
“I think it’s going to be a very competitive festival,” she says. “Our priorities are looking at the finished films available to us, but also looking to get in earlier at some of the film packages that might be being offered to us as well.”
The “packages” Bocco mentions can include films in development or various stages of completion, but they may also refer to a director, filmmaking team or production company that a distributor, especially a deep-pocketed streaming service, can hitch its wagon to for future projects.
Brian O’Shea, CEO of international sales company the Exchange, observes that Sundance is a particularly good festival for forging these relationships.
“Filmmaker development is huge,” O’Shea says. “The right film could become hugely, hugely aggressive, but also there could be little gems that they pick up for a premium price, and then they start a very special relationship.”
But the thing the pandemic has taught the entertainment industry most vividly is that consumers are hungrier than ever for content.
“It’s a good time to be a content creator,” Bocco says. “But I think it’s important to be flexible and fluid in terms of the marketplace. So it’s really having an eye towards the future, and being able to be nimble in how the theatrical market is unfolding. There is enough content to go around, but also enough where people will be happy to have choices.”