Waiting for the Sundance Film Festival to start is for squares, if you’re a savvy distributor looking to make deals before the first audiences plant themselves in the seats.
With the titles for the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, even waiting for Sundance to announce its slate was too much for one distributor. Focus Features announced just after Thanksgiving weekend, a couple of days before Sundance announced the films that would play at the festival this week, that it had acquired Oscar winner Morgan Neville’s new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” about children’s TV legend Fred Rogers.
Recently, HBO Documentary Films announced it had picked up the TV rights to “Believer,” director Don Argott’s documentary about Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds’ effort to reconcile his Mormon faith with his support of the LGBTQ community, and the TV and theatrical rights to Nathaniel Kahn’s “The Price of Everything,” a look inside the ever-chaotic art market.
As the festival kicks into high gear Friday in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort, every distributor is looking for a leg up on the two new players in the acquisition game: the dueling streaming services Netflix and Amazon.
The two companies have been big wheels in the dealmaking process. They have bid big on titles and nabbed them, or driven up the prices other distributors eventually paid. And they often come through after the dust has cleared and cherry-pick titles that were left unsought.
Netflix brought several titles to Sundance last year, including the eventual Grand Jury Prize winner for U.S. Dramatic films, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.” It also shepherded the anorexia drama “To the Bone,” the science-fiction tale “The Discovery” and the made-in-Utah caper “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train.” It picked up the Jack Black vehicle “The Polka King,” which debuted on the service last weekend, and the Oscar-contending drama “Mudbound.”
This year, Netflix comes into the festival with some titles already under its umbrella, such as: “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” a comedy about the creation of the National Lampoon; the drama “Come Sunday,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as a pastor who stops believing in hell; and the documentary “Seeing Allred,” a profile of celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred. And it’s surely looking for more titles to make exclusively its own.
Last year, Amazon picked up four titles at Sundance, the biggest being the reported $12 million deal it made for “The Big Sick.” That romantic comedy — starring Kumail Nanjiani as a version of himself, co-writing with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, about how their relationship began and was interrupted by her medical emergency — turned out to be the biggest box-office success for a Sundance ’17 title, taking in $42.8 million at the box office. (OK, technically, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” which had a “secret” midnight screening at the Egyptian, had a much bigger box-office take, but that doesn’t really count as a Sundance title.)
Amazon Studios has two films playing at Sundance this year, and it’s an odd coincidence that both star Joaquin Phoenix: Lynne Ramsay’s drama “You Were Never Really Here” and Gus Van Sant’s dark comedy “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.”
The two companies take radically different approaches to how they handle films once they acquire them. Netflix almost always debuts its films directly onto its service, while Amazon is dedicated to showing its movies in theaters before putting them online.
Sometimes that difference affects the deal that gets made. In 2016, famously, “The Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker turned down Netflix for a slightly lower bid from Fox Searchlight because he wanted a guaranteed theatrical run. But Netflix’s interest drove up the price Fox Searchlight paid, a reported $17.5 million. (The deal never paid off; a college-era rape accusation against Parker resurfaced, squelching the movie’s awards-season hopes.)
Among film lovers, Netflix is the most argued-about distribution company. On the one hand, indie filmmakers are happy that somebody, anybody, is interested in paying them for their movies and giving an audience a chance to see them. On the other hand, there is a perception — exacerbated by the company’s habit of not divulging viewership numbers — that Netflix is a burial ground for indie films, left there and never to be heard from again.
For stay-at-home film lovers, this month offers a test. Netflix now has available 29 titles that played at last year’s festival — more than most people, except for a few insane diehards, saw in person in Park City. These include documentaries (“Icarus,” “Chasing Coral” and “Unrest” among them), children’s films (“My Life as a Zucchini”), horror (“Raw,” “XX”) and more.
If you’re not venturing out to see this year’s new movies, the next best thing is as close as your TV remote. Happy binge-watching.
Five to watch
Of the 29 titles from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival now showing on Netflix, here are five standouts:
“Burning Sands” • Gerard McMurray’s intense drama captures the harrowing journey of fraternity pledges getting hazed at a black college.
”The Discovery” • Charlie Macdowell’s twisty sci-fi drama, about a scientist (Robert Redford) who discovers what the afterlife looks like, is strangely touching.
”Icarus” • The documentary that led to the Russians getting booted from the Olympics goes dangerously deep into sports doping and captures a touching human story behind the headlines.
”Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” • An urgent documentary that details the threats to democracy if super-rich people can use their fortunes to squelch journalism.
“Raw” • Julia Ducournau’s erotically charged horror movie, about a veterinary student who gets turned onto cannibalism, is not for every taste (pun intended) — but for horror fans, it’s irresistible.