Netflix and Amazon Are Already Throwing Money Around the Sundance Film Festival
This year’s Sundance Film Festival opens its two-week run today, which means that many of Hollywood’s biggest players are in Park City, Utah to spend millions of dollars trying to find the next breakout indie film.
Bidding wars have been known to break out at Sundance, as studios fight over films they think could be the next Little Miss Sunshine—the 2006 indie comedy that sold to 21st Century Fox’s indie distribution arm, Fox Searchlight, for $10.5 million and went on to gross more than $100 million worldwide. But, last year, leading streaming services Netflix and Amazon Studios went on an impressive spending spree that reportedly drove up prices at the prestigious annual indie film festival. The two streaming services have been engaging in something of a content arms race in recent years, with both Amazon and Netflix spending billions of dollars each year acquiring enough original content to challenge traditional television and film studios.
Last year, Netflix bid a reported $20 million for the distribution rights to the buzzy historical drama The Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner’s slave uprising, but ultimately lost that film to Fox Searchlight, which paid $17.5 million. (Director-star Nate Parker said Fox Searchlight was a better fit for the movie, though he also reportedly was turned off by the fact that Netflix does not usually give films a wide theatrical release.) Still, Fox Searchlight’s purchase was a big one for the independent movie world. It was a Sundance record, topping the $10.5 million that Little Miss Sunshine sold for in 2006.
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Netflix consoled itself by acquiring several other projects, including the rights to the Paul Rudd-starring comedy Fundamentals of Caring for $7 million. Amazon, meanwhile, spent upwards of $20 million across a few different films, including $10 million for director Kenneth Lonergan’s devastating drama Manchester by the Sea.
Some of the large expenditures at last year’s event brought a healthy return financially and critically. Netflix and Amazon companies have been especially keen of late on ramping up their production and distribution of original films to the point that both sites could be in contention at next month’s Academy Awards. Fox Searchlight struggled to match the early hype surrounding The Birth of a Nation, in part due to the renewed criticism over a past rape charge against Parker (he was acquitted in 2001). The movie has so far failed to garner any major award nominations and has only earned roughly $15 million at the box office.
On the other hand, Manchester by the Sea maintained its Oscar buzz all year, despite sexual harassment allegations following star Casey Affleck, who just won a Golden Globe for his performance. That movie is expected to compete for a Best Picture Oscar and has already returned Amazon’s investment by making $38 million.
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It remains to be seen if the studios’ free-spending ways will continue this year. After The Birth of a Nation‘s poor showing, studios may shy away from another record-setting purchase, but there should still be plenty of healthy competition. Some films were snatched up even before the festival even opened its doors on Thursday, with Netflix securing a documentary about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey earlier this month. Casting JonBenet will screen at Sundance this weekend before debuting on the streaming site in April. Also bought pre-Sundance, Sony Pictures Classics paid a reported $6 million for global rights to gay love story Call Me by Your Name.
On Wednesday, Amazon reportedly snatched up its own documentary, reportedly paying more than $6 million for a four-hour film about The Grateful Dead that Martin Scorsese produced. Amazon’s motion pictures head Jason Ropell told The Hollywood Reporter this week that Amazon does not have a set number of films it plans to acquire at Sundance this year, adding that “you have to be prepared for whatever the opportunities—and we are.”
Of course, this could also be the year when even more non-traditional Hollywood players enter the bidding scene. Variety pointed to streaming services such as Vimeo and Hulu (which is jointly-owned by Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox, and Time Warner) as entities that could always enter the bidding. while it’s also possible that Apple could shake up Sundance considering the tech giant’s apparent interest in producing its own original video content.