Sundance 2020: 6 Things to Expect From Indie Film Sales Market

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Indie distributors and sales agents are expecting a “healthy” market with lots of activity and competition among buyers

One year after Sundance broke records with mega deals and huge bidding wars, indie distributors and sales agents are expecting a “healthy” market with lots of activity and competition among buyers at this year’s film festival.

“Personally, I feel like there is going to be more activity at Sundance than there was at Toronto,” Oliver Wheeler, an agent in the International & Independent Film Department at ICM, told TheWrap. “The new streamers will be active and the ecosystem is healthy for the right content.”

Another sales agent  added, “The market continues to be strong, the money is there and the financiers are out there and excited.”

According to several executives, this year’s independent film market is “healthy” and thriving, even with the new influx of countless streamers competing with the traditional distributors. Filmmakers are also embracing new paradigms for distribution, which could lead to new, creative ways deals are made on Park City’s Main Street. 

Here are six things we can expect from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival sales market:

1. The Ecosystem Is Healthy

Yes, product didn’t sell quite as fast and for as much money at the Toronto International Film Festival in September as many agents had anticipated, with many projects still up for sale four months later. (Those orphaned films include Dakota Johnson and Jason Segel’s “The Friend” and Gale Polsky’s buzzy documentary “Red Penguins.”)

“It’s as healthy, or healthier, than it’s been. From a traditional distributor standpoint, it’s more precarious,” a second sales agent said. “They have to be smart in the way they pick.”

All eyes will be on the multiple streaming services that have launched in the past year — or ones that are close to launch and are filling up their slate. Disney+, HBO Max and Quibi are just a few examples. But also David Glasser’s 101 Studios is hoping to make a splash at its first Sundance. (The company kicked off last fall with its first release, Benedict Cumberbatch’s recut “The Current War” that had been shelved at The Weinstein Company following Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault scandal.)

Saban Films President Bill Bromiley agreed that the consumer appetite for indies remains strong. “The challenging part is figuring out how to get them seen and being able to monetize it so we can have more money to buy and distribute these movies,” he said. “That’s changing.”

One factor is the box office for some recent indies. Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” which sold to A24 for $7 million at last year’s Sundance, was produced for $3 million and has made $19 million worldwide. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” a Cannes acquisition and Oscar front-runner, had the highest per-screen average of 2019 — $125,421 during its opening weekend — and has since grossed $143 million worldwide. And “Uncut Gems” has made $44 million globally in just three weeks, earning the second highest per-screen average of the year ($107,448). So yes, there is a hunger for independent film, during a time where some big-budget studio fare like “Dark Phoenix,” “Charlie’s Angels,” Terminator: Dark Fate” and “Cats” can’t get their return on investment. 

Independent distributors — classified as distributors outside of majors and mini-majors like Disney, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony and Lionsgate — also accounted for roughly the same amount of domestic market share as 2018: approximately 14%.

2. Everyone Will Be Looking Over Their Shoulder

With the influx of streaming platforms, competition is high. And insiders say there might be a copycat effect: When one streamer makes a move, the others will (want to) do something similar. 

“There are new buyers in the marketplace, and everyone will be looking over their shoulder to see what their competitors are doing, which should make for a healthy market,” Wheeler said. ICM is selling buzzy films “Worth” and “Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen” at the festival. “I am feeling optimistic.”

And traditional indie distributors recognize that in a bidding war, they just can’t compete with the deep pockets of the streaming giants. “Netflix and Amazon, if they want something, they are going to get it before we do because they have deeper pockets,” one buyer told TheWrap. “The streamers aren’t competing with us on the same level and it hasn’t affected our business yet, and I don’t think the streamers will change our strategy a lot — it actually gives us more leverage.”

promising young woman

“Promising Young Woman” (Focus Features)

3. Here’s Who Will Buy — and Who Has a Full Slate for 2020

Who will be touching down in Park City with their checkbooks ready depends a lot on how full the company’s release slate is for 2020. Focus Features (which has “Promising Young Woman” and “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” at the festival) and Bleecker Street (which is distributing “The Assistant” and “Dream Horse”), for example, might not be as active this year given their release schedule is already pretty packed for the year. 

A24 is always stacked, especially given the fact the company produces its own films, and Neon also has a few films set for release this year, including last year’s Sundance selection “The Lodge.” According to insiders, many filmmakers are vying to work with the distributor given the company’s success with “Parasite.” Sony Pictures Classics — which already bought “The Father” ahead of the festival — Fox Searchlight and IFC Films have a pretty stacked slate as well. 1091 Media, formerly The Orchard, will likely be vying for product. 

While few companies have made movies for themselves in-house, like A24, other distributors like Fox Searchlight, Fox and Bleecker Street still need content and are likely to come in strong buying mode, said the sales agent.

The second sales agent noted that the uncertainty around the market has dissipated since the last wave of corporate mergers involving media companies. “There is more clarity with Disney and Fox and Fox Searchlight and Hulu than there was last year, and they are coming after movies as aggressive as ever,” the insider said. “HBO Max and Warners are settling and they are expressing needs for films. Fundamentally, everyone is hungry right now.”

Wheeler agreed, nothing that there is also of product up for grabs, especially when you compare this year’s Sundance slate to last year’s Toronto, where most films already had distribution set up. “The traditional guys will be there too, and there is now a clearer demarcation of what the streamers are looking to do and the kind of content that works for the traditional distributors. I think there will be enough to go around.” 

Brittany Runs a Marathon

4. Let’s Talk About Amazon and the Other Streamers

One big question mark is Amazon Studios, which may be skittish after making multiple purchases of projects upwards of $10 million last year that underwhelmed at the box office, like “Late Night” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” Insiders told TheWrap the company might be reevaluating its spending this year. An Amazon spokesperson had no comment in regard to the company’s spending plans, but did tell TheWrap that three of the five best performing original movies of all time on Prime Video were “Late Night,” “Brittany Runs a Marathon” and another Sundance acquisition, “The Report.” Moreover, Amazon has insisted it does not use box office as a measurement of success. 

Last year’s splashy purchases — which produced middling theatrical success were the result of a relatively new team at Sundance. Julie Rapaport was hired as co-head of the film division in September 2018 alongside Ted Hope and Matt Newman. “It was a moment for them to enter the marketplace with their new leadership in place and making a name for themselves, and they stand behind the movies they bought,” the first sales agent said of the streamer’s 2019 Sundance buying spree.

“They are looking less at theatrical revenue but instead are looking at public subscribing,” the agent said, but noted that the streamer is likely to be less ambitious this year. “While I think they will show up, I don’t think they’ll be buying three movies upwards of $10 million each.”

Netflix is pumping out content left and right, most of it created in-house, but insiders said the streamer might pick up a documentary here and there, or acquire some foreign language films. “Netflix is always in the conversation — we’ve seen a trend where they haven’t been able to capture the opportunities at Sundance because filmmakers still want the theatrical distribution. They still have a chance to create a name for themselves,” the sales agent said, adding, “We’ve seen movies that just make more sense on the streamer.” 

The question is how new corporately backed streamers like Disney+ and HBO Max will approach the festival’s fare. “It’s how we felt about Apple last year — they came in guns blazing,” a third insider said. “For everyone who is just starting out, it’s that first acquisition that is going to carve out what their slate is going to look like.” 

For prestige features, the second sales agent expects veteran indie players like Sony Classics, IFC Films, Magnolia and Neon to come through with deals by promising upfront movie with theatrical release guarantees.

selah and the spades

5. More Creative Deals

Many sellers are looking to find creative ways to strike deals with buyers that will transcend just one medium. “It’s more about being creative,” Wheeler said, explaining that ICM’s sale of “Selah and the Spades” to Amazon included a deal to build out the project as a TV show. “I’m not sure if we would have made that deal with Amazon had the TV idea not been a part of it. We are thinking outside the box more often now that the lines between TV and film are increasingly blurred, we are thinking about whether we can sell this not only as a film that stands alone on its own merit but also as piece of an IP — that can live on and become a larger universe?” 

It will be interesting to see what Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi does at the festival this year, since the company is focused on short-form video instead of feature-length projects. Insiders believe Quibi might seek out a different type of deal. “They are less interested in picking up a movie and cutting it up,” the first sales agent said. “What they are trying to do is to get filmmakers and talent and ask them, do they have an idea that can spawn into a project for their platform. In their mind, it’s like, Why not be there and strike in the moment when someone has an idea?”

A spokesperson for Quibi has not yet responded to TheWrap’s request for comment.

6. Filmmakers Are Embracing New Paradigms

The streamers have been a point of contention in the film industry for years, but it seems that more filmmakers are open to working with not just traditional distributors but also streaming platforms. “Everyone is starting to come to grips with the new paradigm and the fact that people are viewing content in different ways,” Wheeler said. “Generally, people are becoming more open to the Netflix model.”

After all, Netflix has done limited theatrical runs for select prestige films like “The Irishman” and “Roma,” so filmmakers can get their films seen on the big and small screens. Additionally, streaming deals are comprised of money up front — there are no residuals deals in place as you’d see with a more traditional film sale given that there is no theatrical run. This can ensure financial security for filmmakers and producers — though it limits the upside for a truly breakout hit.

While Wheeler said people are coming to terms with the shifting medium, a fourth sales agent told TheWrap that Netflix’s appeal isn’t anything new. “Filmmakers have been open to the streamers for a while now,” the insider told TheWrap. “There is an openness to everything because filmmakers are aware of all the opportunities.”