The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing, with dozens of movies screened daily in venues spread across the small skiing community of Park City, Utah. The entertainment press gets very excited about the event, eagerly covering the proceedings. But is all the hype warranted?
Typically three storylines emerge out of Sundance: The celebrities in attendance, the buzzed about titles, and the acquisitions that take place. (This year’s fest has a rare combo, with the Taylor Swift film “Miss Americana’’ drawing lines around the snowy block and T-Swizzle herself showing up.) Those elements combine every year to aid hopeful films awaiting the chance to be entered into a bidding war between studios, putting them on the necessary path to being seen by audiences.
While independent film has remained a viable component in American cinema to varying degrees, it is certainly benefitting lately from the expansion of streaming. The service providers are hungry for content and flush with money, and they are not shackled with the same marketplace standards the studios have with theatrical releases. This has led to double-digit deals becoming the norm, and more independent titles finding an audience, whether on Netflix or soon on the many other services coming into the marketplace.
Yet for all of the talk about the annual array of films, very few manage to affect culture much after the festival. Looking back at 2019’s slate of Sundance films reveals that many of those expected to have import did not actually make significant impacts. To illustrate that, consider this list of the most hyped titles from last year’s Sundance.
Pushing the limits of “independent,” this glossy comedy followed talk shows stars played by Emma Thompson, John Lithgow, and Mindy Kaling. That wattage generated heavy interest at the fest. A bidding war erupted and Amazon won out with a heavy $13 million buy, setting a Sundance record for strictly U.S. rights.
This film is a perfect example of excitement at the festival not translating to a broad audience. Released in June on more than 2,200 screens, it opened in eighth place, going on to earn just $15 million.
Adam Driver heads a deeply impressive cast in this drama about the true-life investigation into the CIA use of waterboarding on terror suspects. Amazon dropped $14 million on the global rights. Seeming to have Oscar pedigree, it was never released in U.S. theaters, and was barely shown in foreign ones, becoming a very expensive streaming title.
Brittany Runs A Marathon
This title perhaps epitomizes the current climate in Park City better than any. Amazon shelled out another $14 million for this comedy about a frumpy woman who trains for a race. The streaming giant had a curious platformed release that began at the end of summer and stretched into November, with the film expanding onto 1,000 screens after a month on the market. It barely made $7 million in total, but the value is fluid for Amazon as it is now streaming globally on Prime.
This is one of the few success stories, but it’s a qualified one. The boutique studio A24 bought the rights for this tale of a Chinese family, starring Awkwafina, for $6 million. The actress received rave reviews, and won a Golden Globe for her performance. There were no Oscar nominations and it went on to earn $17 million.
This was possibly the most talked-about title from last year, delving into the sexual crimes by singer Michael Jackson. It was acquired by HBO, which makes sense as theaters were not an option for a four-hour documentary. “Finding Neverland” was absolutely talked about in the culture, especially in celebrity circles.
Knock Down The House
Another documentary that also benefited from festival hype, this film followed the campaign of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). It won the Festival Favorite Award. (AOC was still a hot news item during last year’s Sundance.) As a result, Netflix dropped $10 million, a record total for a documentary. AOC has seen her fame and influence start to fade and this feels like a strong overpayment, but being Netflix, they will not feel much pain.
This film was considered a horror comedy, featuring Lupita Nyong’o teaching children how to deal with an outbreak of zombies. NEON partnered with Hulu to buy it for a few million dollars. It never made a theatrical release.
This was a vanity project for actor Shia LaBeouf, who wrote a mostly autobiographical film about his experience growing up. Amazon dropped $5 million for the rights, but the film has only made $3 million to date.
The Tomorrow Man
In “The Tomorrow Man,” John Lithgow stars in a high-concept drama about a man who constantly prepares for an imminent disaster that may not be arriving. The U.S. rights were bought by Bleecker Street Media, and the foreign rights by Sony. It was released at its widest in 200 theaters, has grossed $350,000 in the United States, and has yet to see a foreign release.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars with Rene Russo and Toni Collette in this stylish art-based horror, teaming up with director Dan Gilroy with whom he made ‘’Nightcrawler.” This was a Netflix production that debuted on the platform immediately after its festival premiere.
The films listed above show a pattern of middling results. Any given year, there may be one or two breakout titles, some earning their share of nominations, and occasionally greater glory. But this field of disappointing returns is more the norm—a wide range of hyped titles that mostly manage to fade from the public view.
At issue is the atmosphere in Park City, which creates a skewed impression of the titles. Audiences are eager to see the films, since being entered into Sundance alone lends cachet. Add to that the demand some titles draw, and the way people fortunate enough to get a hold of a hard-to-land ticket for certain screenings help inflate perceptions.
There’s also the Sundance crowd in general. These are people generally predisposed to the quality of independent films. That’s not meant as a slight, but when your audience is comprised of mostly that type of fan, the positive reactions become greater than the public perception. Twelve hundred cineastes packing a limited screening at Sundance do not accurately reflect the national demand for a film. This can lead to a warped impression of a movie’s popularity, and lead to overspending.
Just don’t tell that to the journalists in the snow. They keep insisting on the relevance of these titles. But certainly that has nothing to do with wanting to keep getting trips to a ski resort comped by their publishers.