Sundance 2021: Streamers’ Latest Chance to Bulk Up Prestige Push

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Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

Video streamers are about to become aware of many opportunities to bulk up their prestige film offerings as one of the premier indie-film festivals quickly approaches. 

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place Jan. 28-Feb. 3, and it’s expected to be an active marketplace despite this year’s festival’s relatively shorter duration and smaller lineup.

Before late entries like “Captains” and “Judas” were reported, Sundance announced in December the festival would offer 71 feature films. That’s down from 128 in 2020 and 112 in 2019.

The festival’s seven-day duration is also shorter than its usual 11-day run in pre-COVID years.  

But Sundance’s slimmer lineup and condensed time frame make sense given its primarily virtual format this year. Festival attendees will be able to view Sundance screenings and panels online, although certain arthouse theaters across the U.S. will be screening Sundance entries.

There’s some concern that this mainly virtual format will limit word-of-mouth buzz surrounding premiering films. But the positive side to a virtual format is that it greatly boosts the accessibility of Sundance to consumers who no longer need to travel to Utah to experience the festival.  

While being available virtually won’t convert a significant number of those not previously interested in arthouse films into Sundance 2021 attendees, it could result in more eyeballs from the press and entertainment industry landing on anticipated Sundance premieres. 

And that could spur streamers like Netflix and Apple to be more active on this year’s Sundance marketplace.  

Netflix in 2020 notably purchased Sundance title “The 40-Year-Old-Version” in a seven-figure deal, which was reviewed well by critics. But the streamer also seemed to be particularly prescient in making purchases of Sundance-screened docs including “Dick Johnson Is Dead” and “Crip Camp.” 

Variety film awards editor Clayton Davis last week predicted “Dick Johnson” and “Crip Camp” have a high chance of getting nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars, for example. This could embolden Netflix to be hungrier for docs screened at this year’s Sundance 

Apple also smartly purchased a 2020 Sundance-premiering doc that is in 2021 Oscar contention talks: “Boys State.” That may similarly make Apple more comfortable in scouting for docs at this year’s festival. 

Meanwhile, streamers like Amazon and Hulu could lean on Sundance-premiering films to bolster their prestige drama film runs.  

Yes, Amazon’s recently debuting “One Night in Miami” has been discussed by critics as a strong 2021 Best Picture contender, while even “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” has generated awards chatter. But don’t bet on Amazon letting its foot off the gas pedal due to these films’ reception thus far, as it would be wise for Amazon to stock up on prestige films should it be disappointed at this year’s Oscars.

After all, Amazon in 2019 did spend $47 million on five films including “Honey Boy,” “The Report” And “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” That was more than any studio ever spent in a single year at Sundance. 

Hulu made headlines last year when it and Neon struck a $17M+ deal for the Andy Samberg comedy “Palm Springs.” That was the most expensive deal in Sundance history.  

A similar Hulu megadeal may not be in the cards this year, though, as recent reports by the Financial Times and Bloomberg cast doubt on the amount of resources Disney is willing to pump into the Santa Monica-based streamer as Disney+ takes off.

The number of deals already made for films included in the 2021 Sundance film lineup are currently few. “A Glitch in the Matrix” (Magnolia Pictures), “Together Together” (Bleecker Street) and “Violation” (Shudder) have been picked up so far, according to IndieWire.

For films likely to generate dealmaking headlines, look to the entries in Sundance’s Dramatic Competition and Documentary Competition sections, which are considered to bestow some of the festival’s most prestigious awards. 

First-time directors Jerrod Carmichael and Rebecca Hall are vying for the U.S. Dramatic Competition award with “On the Count of Three” and “Passing,” respectively.  

The Roots’ Questlove will be making his directorial debut with “Summer of Soul” in the U.S. Documentary Competition section. 

Last year’s winner of the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize was the Korean-language Steve Yeun starrer Minari, which some critics currently see as a potential 2021 Best Picture nominee.  

Expect the 2021 Sundance Festival still to spur a healthy amount of dealmaking despite its virtual format. Sundance director Tabitha Jackson said the festival is “doubling down on the mission to be a discovery festival” in a December interview with IndieWire.