Streaming services bid big at Sundance


Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani in the film "The Big Sick." (Sundance Film Festival) Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival

Every year, the Sundance Film Festival provides a revealing look at the state of the independent film industry. As films premiere on the festival circuit, they are snapped up by distributors and studios for distribution later in the year.

While Sundance 2017 saw the usual bidding wars erupt over exciting films like “Mudbound” and “The Big Sick,” the victors of those wars were unexpected.

Streaming services Netflix and Amazon came to Sundance this year with wallets wide open, and they left with significantly more purchases than any other distributors.

According to the final list of Sundance purchases, Netflix ended up with 10 films, including festival favorites “Mudbound” and “Casting JonBenet.” Odds are good that while all of their purchases will eventually make their way onto the streaming site, Netflix will plan theatrical releases for the more 
commercial films.

Amazon has a bit more experience buying acclaimed films at Sundance than Netflix, considering Amazon bought “Manchester by the Sea” at last year’s festival and continues to profit from its awards season run. Amazon purchased four total titles, including romcom “The Big Sick,” from this year’s lineup.

This is where things get interesting. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s real life love story may have a successful limited release later this year, but it’s hard to imagine a major studio paying more than a few million dollars for “The Big Sick” in years past. This year, with streaming services driving up the prices, Amazon shelled out $12 
million for the film.

Netflix’s equally expensive purchase of Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” prompts similar concerns. Even if a regular studio had offered $12.5 million for the racial drama as Netflix did, the studio would likely be planning a huge awards season run. Netflix has never successfully marketed a film for awards, and gambling that much money on a first-time Oscar contender is a surprising move for the company.

While the streaming services seemed to value quantity over assured quality, other experienced studios took a more reserved approach. A24 snapped up pre-festival rights to David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” which will likely be an arthouse hit. A24 has proven in recent years that a small selection of distinct films can take them far, and we can expect no different from the scrappy little studio this year.

Sony Pictures Classics also came into Sundance with pre-festival worldwide rights to “Call Me By Your Name,” avoiding a potentially costly bidding war and keeping the price tag at a reasonable $6 million. Sony also added “Novitiate” and “Brigsby Bear” to its 2017 slate during the festival.

While Netflix and Amazon may have had unconventional approaches to the Sundance marketplace, those deep pockets may work in their favor. If Netflix can run a successful awards campaign for “Mudbound,” perhaps one that imitates Amazon’s 2016 “Manchester By the Sea” run, that high Sundance bill will pay for itself.

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