Flash back to last year’s Sundance. There was growing unrest in the industry that Sundance had gone too niche with their programming, and their days as the leader in American indie cinema was over. MoviePass made one the biggest acquisitions of the fest. Yes, THAT MoviePass. Netflix and Amazon didn’t buy anything and insiders knew Amazon wasn’t thrilled that their arthouse fare, while generating big box office and winning several Oscars, didn’t resonate with their Prime subscribers. This ultimately led to Jason Ropell, their head of their film division, being let go by new studio head Jennifer Salke.
Then a bunch of Sundance premiers were released theatrically and made more money than anyone expected. Eighth Grade made almost $14m. Sorry to Bother You made more than $18m. Leave No Trace made almost $8m. A trio of Sundance docs – Won’t You Be My Neighbor, RBG, and Three Identical Strangers all grossed over $10m. A24’s Hereditary was one of their biggest releases of all time and made more than $44m domestic. Turns out, this was one of the most commercial fests ever. So of course, Sundance 2019 continued to double down on their eclectic programming mission and focused on unique voices and stories. This time, the movie industry backed a truck full of money and dumped it on top of Park City. A really, REALLY big truck and a whole lot of money.
It was kind of hard to make sense of it all. I’m not sure I can. I spent one of my final screenings not really paying attention to the film and trying to stop my head from spinning. Here’s what I came up with: If there ever was a fest that drove home that it’s a streaming world, this year’s Sundance was it. Let’s talk about the specifics:
Amazon is back and money is no object. They bought four films: Late Night ($13m for US rights only), The Report ($14m for the world), Brittany Runs a Marathon ($14m for the world) and Honeyboy ($5m for the world). That’s a total of $46m. While there’s not a clear line through all four of these films, they appear to be sending a message that these were the types of films that they believed their subscribers wanted to watch. This is also a message that they are still playing catch up to Netflix in the original programming department and this haul is an attempt to get closer.
A24 has a lot of content and they can’t release all of it. They have been building their own productions for a few years and augmenting them with select acquisitions, but after buying Climax at Cannes and In Fabric and High Life at TIFF, they had a too full 2019 slate. So they sold two productions they brought to Sundance, Share and day one film Native Son, to HBO for over $10m. This move is reminiscent of Paramount selling Cloverfield Paradox, Annihilation and Eli to Netflix. These were movies that likely were not going to break out at the box office and selling them to HBO would both make them whole and give the films a platform to find an audience. A24 did fall in love with the competition film The Farewell and will make room on their slate for this crowd pleaser.
NEON wants to rebound from a tough second year and this Sundance was exactly what they needed. They ended up with four titles so far: Monos, Luce, The Lodge and Little Monsters. NEON had been aggressive with their 2019 slate with two docs they picked up in 2018 which played in Sundance’s Spotlight section (Apollo 11 and Biggest Little Farm). Add in their pickup of Amazing Grace, and their 2019 will be a strong year.
2019 is going to be a banner year for documentaries again both theatrically and streaming. Sundance played three docs that will generate significant box office: Maidan, Biggest Little Farm, and Apollo 11. Last year, we had four docs that did at least $10m at the box office and these three feel like candidates to achieve that feat in 2019. Hulu picked up The Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary and Netflix picked up American Factory and Knock Down the House. All three will likely be popular when they are released and could be awards contenders.
The studio arthouse labels have bought two docs so far and that’s it. Sony Pictures Classics bought Where’s My Roy Cohn? and the David Crosby doc but Focus and Fox Searchlight haven’t closed anything so far. I heard both kicked the tires on some titles and Fox Searchlight made a few offers, but those offers were “we’re interested and let us know what you’re looking for” type offers that were quickly surpassed by bigger, more passionate interest. It’s great that Fox Searchlight is making offers as that indicates they have a future with Disney, but their days of breaking the bank at Sundance are over. That’s seemingly Amazon’s job now.
Sundance increased their commitment to women filmmakers and it paid off. Sundance has spent three years researching the effect of women as filmmakers and they continue to support their findings with their programming. 47% of the films at this year's Sundance were directed by women and it allowed this year’s edition to both have huge sales and glowing reviews. Sundance believes the more they show films made by women, the more the larger industry will support female filmmakers. It was hard to argue against their data based on how successful Sundance 2019 was.