Even seemingly surefire contenders starring Anne Hathaway, Jonathan Majors and Emilia Clarke ended the festival without a buyer
Sources say that even Randall Parks’ well-reviewed directorial debut “Shortcomings” had trouble drumming up interest, partially because the film’s major screening reportedly conflicted with other big premieres. Jonathan Majors’ grim bodybuilder drama “Magazine Dreams” had its premiere undercut by controversy when jurors walked out over Marlee Matlin’s failed captioning device.
“One big question,” noted a high-ranking professional working both sides of the distribution and exhibition table, “is whether major theatrical studios would step up to the plate to offer a rebuttal to the streaming-first narrative.” That didn’t happen.
The few, the proud, the big paydays
There were a few big gets. Apple TV+ shelled out as much as $20 million for “Flora and Son.” John Carney’s musical rom-com, noted sources, was the one picture where interest skyrocketed after the premiere played through the roof. Netflix paid $20 million for the buzzy and potentially controversial — at least among the perpetually online — “Fair Play.” The Chloe Domont-directed film, starring Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor as two hedge fund analysts having a secret romance, inspired one of the week’s only bidding wars. The big theatrical pickup was Searchlight offering up a reported $10 million for Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s crowd-pleasing mockumentary “Theater Camp.”
Otherwise, most of the in-festival acquisitions were documentaries like “The Eternal Memory” — which MTV Documentary Films picked up Friday morning, and “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Magnolia) alongside horror movies like “My Animal” (Paramount), “In My Mother’s Skin” (Amazon’s Prime Video), “Run Rabbit Run” (Netflix) and “Talk to Me” (A24).
Meanwhile, Ira Sachs’ “Passages” ended up with MUBI and Angus MacLachlan’s character drama “A Little Prayer” ended up with Sony Pictures Classics. Moreover, as is often the case, several high-profile titles like Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings” and Brandon Cronenberg’s “Infinity Pool” — which debuted theatrically Thursday night — and Nida Manzoor’s “Polite Society, already had pre-festival distribution deals.
As discussed last week, this was partially about the market correcting itself after years of arguable overspending and a few years of streaming-specific splurges. As noted by one executive in a prior conversation with TheWrap, “The pace [generally] won’t be as excessive and immediate, with more conventional deal-making in days or weeks instead of hours.” That prediction seems to have come true.
There were fewer big overnight bidding wars than we might have seen a decade ago. However, just because “Cat Person” had yet to nab a distributor by the festival’s end does not mean it will languish in perpetuity.
Fears of box office failure and Wall Street’s judgment meant fewer big buys
As the first in-person Sundance in two-and-a-half years began last week, there was hope that a need to procure content for both theatrical and streaming pipelines, along with fears of a WGA strike, would lead to bountiful business. Conversely, there was a fear over continuing uncertainty about the validity of the theatrical marketplace, in which non-franchise, adult-skewing, smaller-scale films had been struggling well before the pandemic.
For every “Clerks” or “Memento” there were at least a few Sundance crowd-pleasers like “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” and “The House of Yes” that netted big bucks only to eventually play to mostly empty auditoriums upon theatrical release.
Meanwhile, the last few years saw streamers like Amazon — which spent $46 million on films like “Late Night,” “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” and “The Report” in early 2019 — picking up the slack. Apple TV+ still arguably has because-we-can money, but Wall Street changed its mind about streaming platforms going on content for content’s sake splurges. The streaming war is no longer an alibi for cashing out on a commercial longshot or — save for one or two titles — overspending for the sake of besting rivals.
That also applies to cumulative content spending, which partially explained a slower-than-usual year for documentaries.
Will slow and steady win the race?
“There were several titles,” said one exhibition source, “that were currently in some form of limbo, either genuinely trying to find a buyer, holding out for more money, or trying to find a balance of possibly accepting potentially less money upfront in exchange for a theatrical component.”
Meanwhile, with streamers and studios exercising an abundance of caution, there could be more of a wait-and-see attitude as to whether a film is worth a mega-bucks check.
“Even streamers are more strategic about their purchases,” stated a distribution executive, “partially because everyone has promised to tighten their belt in terms of content.”
Blame mixed reviews, darker subject matter, or fears of limited appeal
In another possible factor for the lack of sales: A number of these films didn’t debut to critical raves. It’s hard enough to get audiences to show up — or hit play — for an adult-skewing character study like “Bad Behaviour” when it’s praised to high heavens, let alone when it’s sitting at a barely-fresh 67% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ditto, for example, “Cat Person” at 41% and “The Pod Generation” at 37%.
Moreover, with streamers less likely to go on a shopping spree and with those same platforms now chasing multi-quadrant titles with stereotypically broad appeal, there’s less incentive to pay big bucks for a demographically-specific drama or comedy even if it’s an alleged crowd-pleaser like “Shortcomings” sitting at 83%. That some, but not all of these films, were darker or ponderous pictures, especially when contrasted with the likes of “Little Miss Sunshine,” probably didn’t help.
Save for horror films, audiences are gravitating toward cheerful or viscerally propulsive fare like “CODA” or “Glass Onion” at home as much as they are with the likes of “A Man Named Otto” or “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” in theaters. Even a likely — as intended by the source material — cringe-fest like “Cat Person” may seem off-putting to buyers.
Come back again in three weeks!
The hope is that all of this is a mere symptom of studios and streamers being more cautious about spending money quickly, as opposed to spending money at all. By this time next month, most of these shocking no-deal movies may be turned into titles coming soon to a streamer or theater near you. That the fears of a strike didn’t seem to make an impact either means the industry doesn’t think there will be a work stoppage or they don’t care.
But the overall consensus is that a still-questionable theatrical marketplace and a newfound spendthrift mentality at most of the streamers combined to turn this year’s Sundance into either a low-sale festival or a wait-and-see affair.
As one upper-level executive summed up, “Studios have always had to look at revenue streams, but now even streamers have accountability.”
Umberto Gonzalez contributed to this article.