So Far, Amazon and Netflix Are Sundance’s Top Buyers

PARK CITY, Utah — It was the independent film equivalent of a crack of thunder.

After its Sundance premiere on Saturday, “Manchester by the Sea,” a buzzy drama starring Casey Affleck as a handyman coping with family strife, sold not to a traditional studio distributor but to a streaming service. Amazon paid a hefty $10 million for the movie, beating out the likes of Fox and Universal.

After years of dipping their toes into the Sundance water — picking up a documentary here, making an unsuccessful bid for a narrative film there — the big streaming services this time around are driving the deal-making. Halfway through the 11-day festival, which started on Thursday, Amazon had bought four films. Netflix had snapped up three and was chasing several more. Most traditional distributors had yet to buy anything.

“We’re interested in distinctive films by artists who have something new and interesting to say,” said Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios.

The streaming service shopping spree does not just reflect the ability of these deep-pocketed insurgents to outspend the entrenched studios. Filmmakers, once dismissive of streaming companies, have been looking at the struggling art-house box office and deciding that getting their work seen by the widest possible audience — while being handsomely paid, of course — may be what matters most.

“You always want your film to be shown on a big screen with perfect sound and the best projection,” said Sian Heder, who wrote and directed “Tallulah,” a comedic drama that had its premiere here on Saturday and sold to Netflix for about $5 million. “But that’s not always the reality anymore. The way that people consume media is changing.”

Netflix, focused on building a global streaming catalog, is not especially interested in theatrical releases, even though it will sometimes put films in a few theaters to qualify them for awards. Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” for instance, was simultaneously released in October on Netflix and in 31 theaters. (To the displeasure of Mr. Fukunaga, the film, while successful on Netflix, flopped badly in theaters, taking in $90,777.)

In contrast, Amazon is trying to make inroads with filmmakers — in particular those with an eye toward the Oscars, including Kenneth Lonergan, the writer-director behind “Manchester by the Sea” — by approaching the independent film business much like a traditional distributor. “For every movie that we do, we want as robust a theatrical run as the film will support,” Mr. Price said.

In other words, Mr. Price’s Sundance purchases will arrive on the Amazon Prime streaming platform only after playing in theaters (for varying periods).

In addition to buying “Tallulah,” which stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney, Netflix paid $7 million for the global streaming rights to “The Fundamentals of Caring,” a Sundance road movie starring Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts and Selena Gomez. Other Netflix purchases include “Under the Shadow,” a horror movie set in Iran.

“We’re in the market for enjoyable films that have a great creative vision and that we can show to our members in 190 countries,” said Jonathan Friedland, Netflix’s chief communications officer.

Also going home with Amazon from Sundance is the documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” about a mysterious writer whose identity shocked the literary world; it cost about $1 million to acquire, or roughly double what some distributors were willing to pay. Amazon also bought “Complete Unknown,” starring Rachel Weisz as a mysterious dinner guest, for a little more than $2 million, and “Love & Friendship,” a period drama based on a Jane Austen novella, for about $2 million.

Roadside Attractions, co-founded by Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff, will work with Amazon to distribute “Love & Friendship” in theaters. “The theatrical model continues to have a lot of value, especially because it means something to viewers when films play in theaters,” Mr. Cohen said.

In his view, releasing films simultaneously in theaters and on video-on-demand platforms, streaming or otherwise, leaves consumers with a bad impression. “It has somehow become a signal that the movie isn’t any good,” he said.

A decade ago, before the digital entertainment boom vastly expanded viewing options, independent films were routinely able to break through in theaters. “Little Miss Sunshine,” for instance, bought at Sundance in 2006 by Fox Searchlight, collected about $70 million at theaters in North America, after adjusting for inflation. At its widest release, the movie played in 1,602 locations.

But smaller films today are having a more difficult time selling tickets. Now, a movie like “Brooklyn” is considered a success. Fox Searchlight bought it at Sundance last year and it has taken in about $27.5 million since its release in November, playing in 906 theaters at its peak. Of the films sold at Sundance in 2015, only a handful took in more than $1 million at the domestic box office.

As a result, some sales agents say, traditional distributors are being more selective at Sundance. “Every year we have a little bit of that syndrome,” said Jessica Lacy, head of independent and international film at ICM Partners. “This time around, the breakout potential of some films in the lineup is not as obvious. That can be challenging for a traditional studio as it tries to figure out what deals make sense.”

Ms. Lacy continued, “That said, there are still quite a few promising films to debut.” A premiere is scheduled on Tuesday, for instance, for “The Intervention,” about a fumbled attempt by a group of friends to halt a marriage.

Traditional buyers have not been sidelined entirely. As of midday Monday, Sony Pictures Classics had purchased “Equity,” a female-focused Wall Street thriller starring Anna Gunn, and a documentary called “Eat That Question — Frank Zappa in His Own Words.” Lionsgate, through its Summit label, paid an estimated $2.5 million for “Indignation,” an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel.

“The market is a bit slower this year than last, but that is also because filmmaker teams have to sort through more options and decide what’s most important to them,” said Paul Davidson, senior vice president for film and television at the Orchard, an entertainment company known for movies like “Cartel Land,” an Oscar-nominated documentary.

“For some, it’s the largest check,” Mr. Davidson said. “For some, it’s a real theatrical release.”

Source: The New York Times