As this year’s Sundance Film Festival begins to wind down, the annual parting question of what film is the “winner” remains unanswered. Unlike last year, when there was a fierce bidding war over Kenneth Lonergan’s New England tale of family loss, Manchester by the Sea, which is up for a Best Picture Oscar, and when Fox Searchlight paid a record $17 million for the slave drama The Birth of a Nation, this year the film community has been struggling to name victors or even make sense of a week in which, according to Variety, “buyers were griping” over a slate of films described as “aggressively uncommercial.”
In other words, there is no obvious Little Miss Sunshine or Precious, films discovered at Sundance that went on to mainstream success and Oscar glory. A dry year isn’t unheard of at Sundance, but other dynamics are to blame as well. One of the biggest is the arrival of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. Although these and other companies, such as Hulu and Apple, are pumping more money into the struggling indie film market as they race to acquire films for sums of money that haven’t been since since the go-go ’90’s, their differing DNA and motives for acquiring films has created a market rife with idiosyncrasies and hard-to-read results.
For example, while Netflix arguably owned Sundance this year, arriving in Park City with 8 completed projects, including the opening night film I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, starring indie darling Melanie Lynskey, and paying $8 million for the worldwide streaming rights to To the Bone, a drama starring Keanu Reeves and Lily Collins, the majority of the films it purchased were documentaries. These included Don’t Speak, about the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker lawsuit; the global-warming picture Chasing Coral; and Icarus, film about Russian doping for which Netflix paid $5 million.
Netflix’s hunger for documentaries is driven not by a desire to put movies in theaters–when it does release films theatrically it releases them the same day on Netflix–but to program its service. The company has always had a strong documentary slate, dating back to its DVD days, a cause that’s been championed by head of content Ted Sarandos and that has become a mark of distinction for the company. Says one indie film executive, “They really created a demand for docs because they allowed consumers in very far-reaching places across the U.S. to access docs in DVD. They’re a big believer in the space and in a way they’ve trained subscribers to expect a certain level of documentary in their catalogue. So they continue to program to that.”
Docs have also landed Netflix in the Oscar race (What Happened, Miss Simone? and Virunga were both nominees), but by and large its doc-heavy spree at Sundance mainly benefits subscribers, not theater-goers eager to check out the hottest new films in the comfort of a stadium seat.
Amazon, in contrast, releases all of its film theatrically before they are made available to Amazon Prime members four to eight weeks later. “They’re kind of like a classic indie brand competing with Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight,” says the indie film exec. “Filmmakers know they’ll get a meaningful theatrical release and a shot at theatrical revenue, unlike with a lot of the other (streaming) players.” This reputation, which has been solidified with the Oscar halo surrounding Manchester By the Sea, helped the company land two of the biggest deals at Sundance: it paid $12 million for The Big Sick, a comedy from Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani about a Pakistani-American tending to his sick girlfriend (Netflix was an early bidder for the film); and it nabbed Landline, a family drama reuniting the Obvious Child team of Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre for a reported mid-seven-figures.
The Big Sick‘s price-tag makes it technically the biggest winner so far at Sundance, and given its Judd Apatow pedigree (he produced it) and high marks amongst critics, the film seems likely to crossover to general audiences. But even so, most fest-goers have stopped short of calling it the definitive movie of the festival. “Amazon is walking away big,” says one source, “but I don’t think they’ve found their Manchester by the Sea.” (Amazon also dipped its toe in the doc market, buying the Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip.)
But perhaps trying to declare a “winner” is an outmoded approach, given that the act of buying and selling–and seeing–films has become a far less straightforward process. The arrival of players like Netflix and Amazon, after all, is more than anything a reflection of how we view films today: not just in movie theaters, but on our tablets, smartphones and smartTV’s, and via an array of streaming and on-Demand services. This has made deal-making at Sundance ever more complicated or “triangulated” as one source put it. Whereas before the conversation was mainly about theatrical release and DVD dollars, now streaming and on-Demand rights have to be taken into consideration and reflected in the purchase price of a film. Even film distribution companies themselves aren’t necessarily the only “winner” because they’re inevitably sharing streaming rights with companies like Netflix.
None of this is as sexy, of course, as the days when Harvey Weinstein and his Miramax crew would preside over all-night bidding wars in swank hotel suites, emerging the next morning bleary-eyed and delirious after signing a fat check that had rivals steaming. But in the place of this insular drama is a system that is far more democratic and, ultimately, film friendly. All you need is a device and a $10-a-month subscription to see most of the movies that have been on display in Park City. No matter if you don’t live anywhere near an art house movie theater. In this way, maybe it’s film lovers who win.