The Sudden Decline of Sundance

Now that Netflix and Amazon have shifted focus away from acquisitions to producing original films, expect widespread disappointment by sales agencies and producers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Did Sundance Peak in 2017?

The deep pockets of digital distributors inflated the average price of film rights at Sundance and other major film festivals. The acquisition pricing frenzy unleashed by Netflix and to a lesser extent Amazon at Sundance and other notable film festivals peaked in 2017.

Netflix inflated the prices paid by domestic and international distributors at most major markets. At Sundance in 2017, distributors paid over $110 million to acquire rights to films. As expected, Netflix led the charge, spending $40 million on 11 films. The largest of which was the $12.5 million paid for "Mudbound"

, the biggest deal of 2017. The film garnered three Oscar nominations, despite no substantial release in theaters.

Netflix also spent big on five documentaries, including $5 million for “Icarus.”

Similarly, in 2017, Amazon paid $12 million for The Big Sick, which grossed $56 million worldwide and received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

In the wake of this disruption, there was a wide pricing discrepancy between producer expectations and buyer realities.

Subdued Sundance 2018

In 2018, Sundance was much more subdued because Netflix and Amazon decided to focus on producing original films rather than acquiring festival darlings in competitive bidding wars. In the lead up to the 2018 Festival, Netflix and Amazon didn’t acquire a single film.

At 2018’s Sundance Film Festival, “the bidding wars were not as robust as when a lot of these emerging buyers were trying to make a statement,” said a managing partner at Ramo Law, whose clients had films at Sundance.

The biggest 2018 pickups were acquired for much less and didn’t perform well at the box office.

Bleecker Street and 30West paid $4 million for the U.S. rights to Keira Knightley period drama “Colette.” The film grossed only $5 million domestically.

The biggest sale in 2018 was for the global rights to “Assassination Nation” for $10.5 million by Neon and AGBO (the acquisition vehicle for the Russo brothers). The feminist parable managed only a paltry $2.4 million at the worldwide box office despite extensive marketing and a first weekend release on 1,400 U.S. screens; by week three it was down to 15 screens.

Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions scored a hit with “Searching;” SPWA purchased several territories including domestic rights for $5 million. The film grossed $40 million stateside and over $75 million worldwide. Conversely, Sony Pictures Classics paid $5 million for worldwide rights to “Puzzle” starring Kelly Macdonald, but the film only managed $2 million at the U.S. box office and in her native UK less than £100,000.


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