Sundance 2023 sales roundup: Big films dominate, small films struggle

Films such as “Fair Play” and “Flora and Son” sold as they did in 2020, but buyers showed much less interest in docs and dramas.

Between $20 million for “Fair Play,” eight figures for “Flora and Son,” and a hefty theatrical deal for “Theatrical Camp,” the handshake around the Sundance market seems a little silly.

Big streamers and traditional theater buyers alike got in on the action in Utah, and while there were fewer feverish late-night offerings, films like “A Little Prayer” for Sony Pictures Classics or “Flora and Son” for Apple- were closed within approximately 24 minutes. the hour of their premiere. “Fair Play” had seven potential buyers before Netflix reunited with “Bridgerton” star Phoebe Dynevor. A24 already had half a dozen films at the festival, but “Talk to Me” came in with a midnight entry, beating out some other contenders.

Independent films, are you in trouble? Dealing for many of Sundance’s films appeared to be as fast and aggressive as ever — even pre-pandemic aggressive. Now, a source who spoke to IndieWire on condition of anonymity said that streamers aren’t in the way of the biggest, big ticket sales, and that more announcements for movies like “Eileen” could be made late next week. Magazine Dreams”, “Rotting in the Sun” and the American drama audience winner “The Persian Version”; each has several offers.

In addition to the $20 million for “Fair Play,” Netflix also acquired the Sarah Snook thriller “Run Rabbit Run,” while Amazon acquired the Filipino horror film “In My Mother’s Skin.” As one agent predicted to IndieWire ahead of the festival, it’s still easier and cheaper to acquire striking content than to produce it in-house. And if there’s a streamer in the game, you can bet they’ll all be competitive.

"Theater camp"

“Theatre Camp”

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“There seems to be real activity now around titles that feel like they have a clear audience,” said Ryan Heller, vice president of film and documentaries at Topic Studios, which produces Theater Camp. “They are all knowledgeable and sophisticated in what they need right now. It’s not the year when more new buyers come to the market who need to fill out the forms, but it’s also not the year that they don’t need anything.”

With up to 80 films available for the festival, that’s still plenty on the table. The usually bustling documentary market was remarkably quiet. There was no sale for “Boys State,” “Summer of Soul,” or “Fire of Love,” all of which were bids in the mid-low eight figures.

Magnolia received NEXT winner “Kokomo City,” Greenwich received “Nam June Paik: The Moon Is the Oldest TV,” and World Documentary Cinema Jury Prize winner “Everlasting Memory” found a home at MTV on Friday after an auction that several companies compete. And that’s it so far. Even Doug Liman’s surprise Brett Kavanaugh documentary has yet to find a buyer (though Liman joked that Kavanaugh himself might be in the running).

Kevin Iwashina, who heads the documentary division for Season Five, said the previous major sales of the past few years came at the right time and place: to make a splash with the rise of streamers. Now, streamers are patient, weighing whether and how a theatrical move can create long-term value, not to mention impact the awards race. (Four of the five documentaries in this year’s Oscar competition were shown at Sundance 2022.)

Iwashina expects documentary sales to take a little longer, with respectable deals closing in the coming weeks. “Streamers are more mature, more sophisticated,” he said. “Now they make decisions based on tangible criteria. They want to serve their audience directly and rightly support documentaries. Everyone understands that a large media company can change the trajectory of what a less trained eye might see as a small thing.”

Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora star in Maite Alberdi's Eternal Memory, an official selection for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival World Documentary Competition.  Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.  All photos are copyrighted and may only be used by the press for news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs.  Photographs must be credited to the photographer and/or “Courtesy of Sundance Institute”.  Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photographs is strictly prohibited.

“The Eternal Memory”

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

The genre stuff didn’t face the same challenge, with four of the five Midnight titles available being nabbed (though not the ones we expected). Films that were more dramatic and perhaps not as big as a John Carney musical may still struggle to land deals in the coming months.

“For everything else, it was probably a miscalculation in terms of market activity,” said one distributor, adding that their firm may still buy, but probably not significantly. “I think it’s going to be a rocky road. I think this is going to be a year of transition, of consolidation, and we’re working hard to get theater audiences back to theaters, but let’s understand what kind of movies do that.”

The distributor told IndieWire that many of the films available felt clustered around themes of isolation and trauma, albeit unintentionally. At more accessible addresses, traditional customers have been swamped by aggressive streamers. This distributor suspected that agents did not hesitate to close deals on smaller films like “A Little Prayer” or “Passages.”

The good news is that many distributors who want to leave Sundance with at least one film haven’t pulled out yet. Those still on the sidelines include Bleecker Street, Roadside Attractions, Utopia and IFC Films. And Neon, anyone?

“Everybody has come home, the market is changing now, and people are catching up on the titles they missed,” Heller said. “Film stories are constantly being built.”

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