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Netflix’s Newest Breakout Star? Ted Bundy

Netflix is back in the Ted Bundy business.

Just days after premiering its hit documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, the streaming giant reportedly won a heated, multi-studio war to acquire Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Vile and Evil, a biopic starring Zac Efron as Bundy, the famed serial killer. Netflix paid $9 million for the controversial drama, which was directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger, and premiered last week as part of the annual Sundance Film Festival.

The move comes shortly after the premiere of Conversations with a Killer, Netflix’s four-part Bundy mini-series, which brings the mass-murderer to life via archival interviews with Bundy while he was in prison. One of the company’s overseas Netflix accounts teased Conversations’ release with a wry warning: “Maybe don’t watch it alone.” And while the company doesn’t release viewership information, the series—which was also directed by Berlinger—went on to become a social-media hit upon its release late last month.

Bundy, a former law student, was executed in 1989, following a seventies killing-spree that took him across the United States, including stints in the Pacific Northwest and Florida. By the time of his death at the age of 42, he was believed to be responsible for the murders of at least 30 young women; decades later, the exact number of victims remains unknown. Bundy’s been the subject of numerous books and films, including 1986’s The Deliberate Stranger, starring Mark Harmon, and a low-budget 2002 biopic.

But the two Netflix projects will likely give Bundy a surprisingly high pop-culture profile—perhaps the biggest since his death. Extremely Wicked received mixed reviews, but many critics have praised the performance by Efron, the 31-year-old former High School Musical star, who in recent years has crossed over to more adult-aimed films such as Neighbors and The Paperboy. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix—which has numerous films in this year’s Oscar race–will likely mount an awards-season campaign for the actor, who’s never been nominated.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtXEcBz3Go0&w=560&h=315]

Extremely Wicked was the latest big-figure deal to emerge from Sundance, which has been dominated by streaming services that are increasingly out-spending the major studios. Amazon made two of the biggest payouts of the entire festival, doling out $13 million for Late Night, a Mindy Kaling-written comedy about a talk-show host, and $14 million for another comedy, the self-improvement tale Brittany Runs a Marathon. Netflix, meanwhile, made lower-cost (but still high-profile) acquisitions of several buzz-building documentaries, including American Factory—about cultures clashing at a Dayton, Ohio workplace—and Knock Down the House, which follows a quartet of female political hopefuls, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Yet the Extremely Wicked deal is among the most notable of the festival. It demonstrates many of the reasons Netflix has gained so much Hollywood momentum in recent years: Its eagerness to capitalize on chatter-worthy subjects (no matter how notorious or controversial, like Bundy); its clear desire to beat the major studios at the awards game; and a seemingly bottomless pocketbook.

Just a few years ago, it seemed as though massive Sundance paydays like the one received for Extremely Wicked were falling out of favor: In the late nineties, the indie-event was overcrowded with hit-seekers, who shelled out millions for barely remembered titles like Happy, Texas and Care of the Spitfire Grill. The market eventually rebounded—only to again be hit by a series of bad deals, like the record-breaking $17.5 million spent on 2016’s The Birth of a Nation, which sank upon release, thanks to controversy about its writer-director Nate Parker.

This year, though, companies like Netflix have once again made Sundance a hot destination—even if only for the big-spending streamers. Because Netflix keeps so much of its viewership a secret, it will be impossible to know if the $9 million it spent on Extremely Wicked will be worth the risk. But for now, bagging the movie gives the company it enjoys almost as much as trophies: Bragging rights.