In late January each year, Hollywood's most powerful agents, producers, directors and actors descend upon the hills of Park City, Utah for the renowned two-week Sundance Film Festival. With the entertainment industry's power players packed into one small town, Park City is home to some of each year's biggest arthouse deals as studios hope to bolster their upcoming film slate to gear up for the next year's awards season. But 2016 brings an unexpected new trend to Sundance: the domination of digital buyers. This year, Amazon
While the festival features works from prestigious American and international independent filmmakers, there are always standouts heading into the festival. Hoping to deter competition, Netflix began its purchases before Sundance's opening night as it secured worldwide streaming rights for three buzzy titles: Tallulah starring Juno's Ellen Page, The Fundamentals of Caring with Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez, and Iranian horror film Under the Shadow. While exact figures have not been disclosed, insiders say that the streaming service secured the films with offers in the high seven figures-signaling a strong start for Netflix, which said it will spend over $6 billion on content this year to acquire over 600 hours of original film and television.
Beyond Netflix's advanced purchases, several deals have already eclipsed the previous Sundance record, Fox Searchlight's $10.5 million bid in 2006 for Little Miss Sunshine. Going into the festival, the two titles attracting the most attention from distributors were Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation and Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea.
Parker's film features a critically-acclaimed, all-Black cast in a drama about an 1831 slave rebellion, and financiers were looking for bids between $15-20 million. Almost all major buyers were involved in the bidding process that went late into the night, but Netflix surprised all with its $20 million bid-almost double Sundance's previous record. Netflix's bid drove traditional buyers higher, but Birth of a Nation ended up going to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, largely due to Fox's insistence that it could bring the film awards season success as it did for its previous hit 12 Years a Slave.
While digital distributors lost out to traditional studios in this case, Amazon managed to snatch up rights to Manchester by the Sea for $10 million with the promise that it would mount a theatrical run before releasing it online. The sale could give Amazon its first Oscar-contender, as the streaming service eyes film awards to match its television award for shows like Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle.
Amazon and Netflix may be finding success largely due to studios' reluctance to spend big on independent cinema, which is often hit-and-miss at the box office. Dope and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, critical darlings from last year's festival, were entrenched in bidding wars but failed to connect with audiences, posting big losses for distributors. On the other hand, streaming services still must address producers' concerns about the lack of a traditional theatrical run-which is what Amazon did to secure the rights to Manchester by the Sea.
In the coming years, it seems clear that Netflix and Amazon will take a larger presence at the bidding table at major film festivals, but whether these companies can translate quality independent acquisitions to awards season success is still unknown.