That’s a wrap: Sundance Film Festival 2017

The Sundance Film Festival officially wrapped yesterday (though for many industry folks traveling, they left after Tuesday or Wednesday of last week). This year’s festival will be memorable for many reasons, but not all good ones. This Sundance included a blizzard (great for skiers, awful for pedestrians and traffic), a cyber attack on the box office, power outage at a venue, a march on Main Street and Netflix/Amazon flexing its purchasing power en force. The festival has been growing for years. Beyond the film program, the “extras” of the festival continue to grow. The ski town bursts at the seams during the first five days. As one film critic writes (and others have commented on in the past), maybe the festival should go on a diet.

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When attending a house party at Sundance, please take off your boots.

What interests me most, however, is how many films Netflix picked up at the festival this year. They came into Sundance with major purchasing power. I don’t remember when a distributor has had that much cash to throw at films. In the past, a distributor like Fox Searchlight may have picked up one or even two films above $8 million. But then, beyond purchasing an additional film with a smaller price tag, that would be it. As of writing this post, Netflix has purchased eleven films and Amazon has purchased five out of Sundance (list below). Two years ago, Sundance films were not easily selling to Netflix or Amazon. How quickly that environment has changed.

This situation is interesting for various reasons. From a film festival perspective, it means that many of the now-Netflix films will not be programmed on the circuit later. Based on my experience and talking with fellow festival programmers, festivals are not part of the strategy for a distributor like Netflix*. It is much easier for their company to throw it up on their streaming platform and build word of mouth that way. Everything is done in-house and costs to distribute are low (no need to make several DCPs for theaters). These films could stream for six or eight weeks and then be pulled down. Audiences may not be able to find them easily later. It will be at the discretion of the streaming platform. Festivals may miss out on programming quality films, which may hurt their bottom line – ranging from ticket sales, press impressions and thus sponsorships (that are dependent on the “success” from the previous two elements).

(*In the past Amazon Studios has partnered with traditional distributors for theatrical releases of films in addition to streaming, whereas Netflix has not typically done this.)

It seems this trend will only continue, which makes me wonder what will happen to the industry that attends Sundance. Will less industry attend if they think they can not competitively purchase or showcase a film? The expenses to attend Sundance are very expense, especially for a non-profit festival. If films are being picked up by a distributor that cuts out festival runs…then you could see how that budget line could quickly be cut.

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Main Street is quiet on the opening night of Sundance 2017.

The smaller distributors that don’t have this kind of cash for a buying offer are going to have to get creative. These streaming companies are driving up prices. While I don’t think distributors will stop looking for films all together at Sundance, I wonder: will this open an opportunity for another festival(s) to court distributors and create another market festival? SXSW doesn’t have an industry office to handhold the agents and buyers, so many industry folks are frustrated when attending it. Tribeca doesn’t court most Angelenos and mostly serves their native-New York industry. Does this allow for another regional festival to step up to the next level?

The festival and distributor’s world is a delicate ecosystem for films (as several people discussed last week at Art House Convergence), so this trend will definitely have an effect. The question is how. What do you think?

As of 1/29, here is a list of Netflix and Amazon’s purchases at Sundance (gathered from as many different press releases as I could find):

NETFLIX
To the Bone (worldwide rights, $8 million)
Joshua: Teenager Vs Superpower (worldwide rights, “low seven-figure range”)
The Incredible Jessica James (worldwide rights, $2.5 million)
Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press (worldwide rights, $2 million)
Casting JonBenet (worldwide rights)
Chasing Coral
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
Icarus (worldwide rights, $5 million)
Fun Mom Dinner (streaming rights, partner with Momentum Pictures, $5M)
Berlin Syndrome (streaming rights)
Mudbound (US and other select rights, $12.5 million) *largest acquisition at Sundance 2017

AMAZON STUDIOS
City of Ghosts (worldwide, more than $2 million)
Crown Heights (worldwide, $2 million)
The Big Sick ($12 million)
Long Strange Trip ($6 million)
Landline (US rights, $3 million)

 

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