The deals were flying fast and furious at Sundance with no fewer than 19 films getting bought for seven figures. Though those deals were far from being distributed evenly. 7 came from the US Dramatic section and 9 from the Premiere section.
So why I am not ready to pull out the champagne just yet?
While certainly low budget films like “Dope”, “The Witch”, and “Tangerine” were profitable, even with $1-2M deals, many of these films will be losing out. Worse, because these are often all-rights deals (for the narrative films at least), it is unlikely they will see anything beyond the MG.
Similarly, on the distributor side, there were more films that sold for seven figures this year than generated over $500K in theatrical revenue from last year’s Sundance. Of course, digital has to be factored in, but it does seem to suggest many distributors are likely to regret their spending spree in the coming months.
Currently, I can confirm deals for 58 of the 117 premieres in the festival. Here’s how they break down by section:
US DRAMATIC (10/16)
US DOCUMENTARY (11/16)
WORLD DOCUMENTARY (5/12)
WORLD DRAMATIC (3/12)
DOC PREMIERE (7/13)
NEW FRONTIER (1/6)
SPECIAL EVENT (3/4)
So who are the winners and losers in this? Let’s start with the sales agents.
WME is by far the biggest victor of the bunch. Their sales deals generated over $30M in MG’s. I am sure there are bonuses to be paid out. Though they still have not sold all of their lineup.
ICM, UTA, and CAA all generated over $10M in deals but still have a large chunk of their slate yet to get bought. It is also worth noting that CAA is behind the two biggest deals at EFM that combined to be worth more than $10M.
In the middle of the pack is Submarine. While they sold their narrative film and generated the three biggest doc deals, the majority of the US docs yet to be bought are also Submarine titles. Personally, I have a hunch this has more to do with them having too many films and too high an asking price than anything else.
Cinetic, meanwhile clearly has some explaining to do. While none of the independent sales agents can claim a seven figure deal on their own, most can at least say about half their product has been bought. Cinetic left with not even 1/3 of their films announcing deals. It is safe to assume that even with a dozen films combined this was far from a profitable festival for them.
Some none star driven fare generated bigger buys including “Dope”, “The Witch”, “The Hallow”, and “Tangerine”. “The Witch” and “The Hallow” were also seven figure US rights only deals which means there should be quite a bit more to come for these two genre pics. On the documentary side “Best of Enemies” and “The Wolfpack” both sold to Magnolia for high six figures.
While most docs still opted for a piecemeal distribution strategy there were two that went for the ease of an all rights deal. “Racing Extinction” basically sold off worldwide TV to Discover Network and “Hot Girls Wanted” opted for Netflix. Frequently we are seeing more and more docs focus on TV and with small Oscar qualifying runs being provided. While theatrical releasing for docs is getting harder and the audience for TV/Netflix growing this makes sense. Almost half of the doc deals are specifically geared towards TV in a trend I don’t see letting up anytime soon.
Meanwhile on the narrative side films like The D Train ($3M) and “The End of the Tour” ($1-2M) saw major deals, they likely still are not profitable. Talent like Jack Black and Jesse Eisenberg are unlikely to have worked for scale. In most cases I cannot verify budgets but from prior experiences can make informed guesses. For example, there is a film that has yet to be bought from Sundance 2015 that has an eight figure budget. It would have to generate a festival record to be profitable. At this point it’s simply not possible and there is no doubt that investors will lose millions.
There is no way of covering these deals without addressing the new (or reenergized) players in the room. Alchemy (formerly Millennium) spent big for “Strangerland” and “Zipper” with each costing them between $1-2 Mil. Reviews were mixed on the titles but with stars like Nicole Kidman and Patrick Wilson they are likely pushing for digital $.
Bleeker Street took “I’ll See You in my Dreams” starring Blythe Danner and managed to keep the acquisitions price under $1M.
And Broad Green Pictures snagged the Robert Redford starrer “A Walk in the Woods” for high seven figures. At this point none of the companies have yet to release a film. History suggests there could be trouble for the filmmakers (just look at the tragic situation that was “Gun Hill Road”).
While these new distributors ultimately left with mid-level product, what they managed to do was drive up the price of the most desired fare. In this arena it was the seasoned players and semi-new all-stars that was against dominated the field. A24 spent about $5M combined for “The End of the Tour”, “The Witch”, “Mississippi Grind”, and “Slow West”.
Far and away the bidding champ though was Fox Searchlight. With over $20M combined for Audience/grand jury winner “Me And Earl And the Dying Girl,” “Brooklyn,” “True Story,” and “Mistress America.” Obviously Fox Searchlight badly needed titles, the real question is how much they overpaid and what will ultimately recoup?
What is interesting is two different films opted to turn down higher up front deals. “The Bronze” rejected a $5M offer from Netflix to go with a $3M deal from Relativity. And “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” saw its bidding war go into 8 figures but went for a participatory arrangement that could see them make millions more if it’s a success. It came with a base MG of $4.7M.
Waiting in the Wings
There will continue you to be a large number of deals announced all the way through SXSW. Distributors that have yet to strike include Strand Releasing, Drafthouse Films, CNN Films, Amazon, Bond/360, Amplify, Radius-TWC etc.
I fully expect ¾ + of the Sundance lineup to have some form of US distribution by mid-March. While there have been some big deals at EFM it is much harder to say if the high prices will continue for SXSW and Tribeca. I maintain (especially in the documentary and horror space) that patience can be a virtue. In fact TFC has frequently seen our biggest bookers came from one of the Sundance backups (“Weekend”, “I Am Divine”, “Regarding Susan Sontag”, etc).
So what about the films that haven’t sold yet? On the narrative side they appear to be in two camps. Star driven but with difficult subject matter (“Stockholm, Pennsylvania”) or no names at all. In fact at this point only one film in the entire Next section has distribution. This despite the solid success of “Obvious Child” and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” last year.
Meanwhile, there were big deals aplenty to be had. More intellectual films (“The Stanford Prison Experiment”, “Advantageous”, “Experimenter”) are all still looking for buyers. The films that sold big are either thought to have crossover appeal or high digital $ potential. All of the above mentioned films yet to be bought are certainly set to be money losers. The question is, how much? And if it would be beneficial to pursue some form of DIY distribution.
There is also a widening divide between what wins and what gets bought. ½ of the award winners still lack distribution deals. With 5-7 films in each category getting something there is minimal value to a prize unless it is the Audience or Grand Jury Award. Even then, we’ve seen that for the World Dramatic section they help with festival bookings but rarely in the theatrical space.
This brings me to my final point. All is not lost for the films that have yet to be bought. Some of the bigger deals this year went to LGBT themed films like “Grandma” and “The D Train”. Their distributors will almost certainly pull the films from the fest circuit making titles like “Take Me to The River”, “Tig”, and “The Summer of Sangaille” far more popular on the quite vast LGBT festival circuit.
There is space for all the films in the festival to find an audience. The more big players pursue wider releases, the easier it is for these smaller titles to maximize revenue through ancillaries like festivals and special screenings. Of course for star driven fare that fails to get bought this may seem quite disappointing, but I’d rather make $50K from festivals than not exploit the revenue source at all.
Below are the list of all the films with distributors. Highlighted films were bought before the festival announced their lineup and cannot be considered festival acquisitions.
Sundance Films with Distribution
- A24: The End of the Tour, The Witch, Mississippi Grind, Slow West
- Alchemy: Strangerland, Zipper
- Bleeker Street: I’ll See You In My Dreams
- Broad Green: A Walk in the Woods
- Discover Channel: Racing Extinction
- Film Arcade: Unexpected
- Focus: Cop Car
- Fox Searchlight: Mistress America, Me, Earl And The Dying Girl, Brooklyn, True Story
- Gravitas Ventures: Being Evel
- HBO: 3 1/2 Minutes, How To Dance in Ohio, Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, Going Clear, The Jinx, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
- IFC Films, IFC Midnight and Sundance Selects: The D Train, Sleeping With Other People, Reversal, The Hallow, City of Gold
- Kino Lorber: The Forbidden Room
- Lionsgate: Don Verdean, Knock Knock
- Magnolia: Results, Tangerine, Best of Enemies, The Wolfpack
- Netflix: Hot Girls Wanted, What Happened Miss Simone?
- Open Road: Dope
- Orchard: The Overnight, Digging for Fire, Finders Keepers, Cartel Land
- Oscilloscope: The Second Mother
- Radius-TWC : The Hunting Ground (CNN has TV), It Follows
- Relativity: The Bronze
- Relativity Sports: In Football We Trust
- Samuel Goldwyn Films: Fresh Dressed (with StyleHaul; CNN has TV)
- Screen Media Films: Ten Thousand Saints
- Showtime: Dreamcatcher, Listen to Me Marlon, Prophet’s Prey
- Sony Pictures Classics: The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Grandma, Dark Horse
- Tribeca Film: Misery Loves Comedy
- Vimeo: Going Clear (Exclusive digital after HBO window expires).
Orly chimes in with her 2¢:
I ask myself what does this mean? Is it irrational exuberance? Or rather, will this trigger such a continued reaction? It’s not as if digital distribution creates audiences that did not exist before. As always, there are new players in the market, which always drives a market because everyone needs “product” or else they have to close their doors. That’s the neat and scary thing about film—it’s sexy and people with money are always attracted to it, even if more often than not, on a per film basis more is spent than earned (A-list talent vehicles, tentpoles, and certain genre blockbusters excluded). It’s always great for the directors whose careers may be made. Hopefully enough money trickles back to producers and investors—and that’s what we will aim to track going forward, doing our best to estimate spending and suss out from filmmakers if they made their money back from MGs and royalties, etc. We encourage you to share so that when filmmakers approach us asking what budget ranges they should be constrained by if they want to recoup, we can better assist then to determine that. Knowledge is power people, so please don’t hold back, even if anonymously. And for all those filmmakers who did not close distribution deals, don’t worry, there’s nothing they distributors can do that you cannot do, if you have the money and the time.