It may have been in the single digits in snowy Park City for this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but deals defrosted at the first in-person festival since 2020. Movies came in with distribution in place, others saw heated late-night auctions with tens of millions of dollars mobilized, and more sales are yet to come.
The film that won the Sundance dramatic Grand Jury Prize, A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One, arrived at the festival under the comforting wing of Focus Features. For others that chose to wait, it really paid off. Fair Play inked a mega-deal with Netflix and Flora and Son with Apple – for around $20 million and $25 million, respectively – as a cluster of sales reflected appetite from streamers and traditional distributors.
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What worked best?
The moves raised a perennial question with new urgency: Given current challenges for indie film, streamers and entertainment companies – headwinds that saw industry players headed into Park City anticipating a generally low bar – was it, is it, preferable to ink a deal ahead or wait for an auction? That’s not a new dilemma, but it reflects a balancing act that speaks to the current state of the market.
“The decision to screen all our movies at Sundance was a conscious one,” said Deborah McIntosh, co-head of WME Independent, which is behind four Sundance sales so far: Flora and Son; Theater Camp to Searchlight Pictures for $8 million; A Little Prayer to Sony Pictures Classics; and Passages to Mubi. It’s still negotiating on four films including Eileen, which has several offers. “Once you leave the compact nature of Sundance, it means there are a few more distractions,” she added, but waiting can mean “getting the right deal.”
WME Independent starts the process talking with filmmakers even before a film is made, “examining options, risk factors, and the budget they’ll have to hit for us to successfully raise money.”
The upside of waiting is clear: a chance to show on a big screen amid festival enthusiasm and energy and with buyers and talent face to face. “Introducing [Flora director] John Carney to Apple and other distributors made a big difference. We could do that virtually, but it’s less fun and less dynamic,” said McIntosh.
Given cinema woes, the focus on a theatrical is telling. Windows may not be what they once were, sellers acknowledge, but how a film plays up on screen makes an impact. Even streamers have some kind of theatrical run.
Obvious hazards of bringing a film directly to the public: an opening to criticism, to a less than ideal response, to a challenging Rotten Tomatoes score. Even great reviews don’t mean deals. This year’s big buys mirror current box office trends that favor comedy and uplift (as well as horror), and were about “as expected” for dramas, said one attendee.
On the other hand, A Thousand and One, Rockwell’s feature debut, partnered with Focus well before the film premiered at Park City’s Ray Theatre. Reviews were great and it went on to win the top prize in its category for the story of Inez (Teyana Taylor), a young woman moving from shelter to shelter in mid-1990s New York City, who kidnaps her 6-year-old son from foster care so they can build a life together. Producers are Sight Unseen’s Eddie Vaisman and Julia Lebedev, Makeready’s Brad Weston, and Hillman Grad’s Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani.
Translating acclaim into dollars, however, is not a given. “It’s impossible to say what the Jury Award would have done for a sale,” said Lebedev.
“Would it have sold for a big number, or would people have looked at it as a niche film? People loved the movie. The response has been fantastic. Would a buyer have said, ‘This is a big streaming hit, or a big theatrical hit, and we will give you a $20 million sale?’ We will never know the answer to that,” agreed Weston. “We chose a different path. To have a distributor up front. And we slept better.”
Auctioning movies is fascinating, said Vaisman. “When you have a big win, it’s great. But I think that’s more of a needle in a haystack for producers. Knowing we can make them for the budget we make them for is a win and a coup if you can find yourself in that position.”
“The challenge for producers is that it’s really hard to make movies for a price, and you don’t want to compromise the movies. You want to make them the right way and sell for certain numbers. And some land and others don’t. The market has always been risky. It’s independent film.”
Some movies are lower risk than others.
Flora, Chloe Domont’s Fair Play, and Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp “have real commercial upside, and those were good movies to take to a festival to sell. Those three that sold were meant to sell. Were built to sell,” said one producer.
Flora is about the hilarious struggle of a Dublin mother (Eve Hewson) and son (Orén Kinlan) to understand each other with the help of a used guitar and the uniting power of music. In Fair Play, the relationship of a New York power couple (Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich) turns sinister amid the power dynamics of their cutthroat financial firm.
Theater Camp refers to a scrappy haven for budding performers in upstate New York facing financial ruin after founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma as her clueless crypto-bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) comes to the rescue. It has a theatrical commitment from Searchlight. Ditto with Focus and A Thousand and One. “It was [important] to all of us, and that’s why we ended up there. They believe in theatrical and that it could work in that way, as did, and as do, we,” said Lebedev.
About 20% of the 100-plus films presented at Sundance arrived already spoken for. Big distributors like Focus, Searchlight and A24 went into the festival with pretty full slates. Others, like Sony Pictures Classics, are said to be still actively looking.
If — everyone stresses the “if” — there’s a writers strike later this year, more projects would be bought and stockpiled.
Other Sundance deals include XYZ Films selling Run Rabbit Run, directed by Daina Reid and starring Succession’s Sarah Snook, to Netflix early on. “We had a couple of aggressive buyers on the eve of the festival, and we decided to close. It felt like the right move for the film. Sometimes offers are slow to come, sometimes not. In this case we were fortunate to have them early. The Netflix platform allows us to hit the widest audience for the film and the deal makes it a financial success. When we release the movie later this year, Sarah will be already be in the spotlight [with Succession Season 4] so it’s good timing to maximize exposure” for the film, said XYZ’s Nick Spicer.
Greenwich Entertainment picked up rights to documentary Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV, directed and produced by Amanda Kim, and will release it in NYC in March ahead of its U.S. broadcast premiere on PBS’ American Masters.
With myriad docs at a festival known for them, why this one? There was a TV network involved. There’s an international audience for the film (Paik, the father of video art and coiner of the term “electronic superhighway,” is well known in Europe and Asia, especially his native Korea). It has an educational element. “It will be around for a long time,” said Greenwich co-president Ed Arentz.
It could, in fact, recoup production costs and remunerate anyone that invested in it. That said, Greenwich (and not just Greenwich) has to “make offers based on the kind of risk we are comfortable with, not related to cost of production. That can be galling for the filmmakers.”
Many things are these days, from lingering Covid costs to inflation, insurance costs, high interest rates, currency fluctuations and challenges booking name actors. Consolidation among streamers, which had also been making more originals, tempered demand and prices in the SVOD window. Paramount+ just absorbed Showtime. HBO Max parent Warner Bros Discovery is working through a messy merger and streaming rebrand. On the upside, streamers and corporate parents under intense scrutiny by Wall Street are increasingly cautious on original production.
A slow theatrical recovery has “changed the entire festival marketplace. Not in a good way,” said one producer.
“The big difference is the uncertainty with theatrical. Pre-Covid, we could make some reasonable projections as to what theatrical could mean, and the offer you make a sales agency is a function of what revenue you think you can generate,” said Arentz.
More than ever, “You have to be a surgeon, strategic in what you make and bring to the buyers. Otherwise, they will just pass,” said Brian O’Shea, CEO of international sales agent and producer The Exchange, who was at Sundance scouting for movies to sell at the European Film Market this month in Berlin. He and others are hopeful the theatrical market for indie film will rebound.
This year’s hybrid Sundance — both in-person and online — may itself have unintentionally shortchanged some the films that needed exposure the most. A number of attendees told Deadline that premieres of smaller films were programmed near bigger ones during the fest’s crowded front end, and subsequent press and industry screenings later were sparsely attended.
“A lot of us have been talking about it,” said one attendee. “The problem was that if you had a debut of a really powerful small film against a giant film, you lost your audience. Normally, it’s not a problem, people would go to the next screening. But no one went. Buyers would watch it as a link, with no sense of urgency and no sense of seeing it in the theater with an audience, which for many of the films may have been the only chance to do it.”
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