How Streamers and Lockdowns Distorted Distribution Prices

Even before unprecedented disruptions to the theatrical market, established film buyers and sellers were under tremendous financial pressure after spendthrift streamers elbowed in to populate their sparse film catalogs and vie for Oscar gold.

In an already contracting exhibition market for independent films, virtual film festivals and markets enforced over two years at Sundance, Cannes, and elsewhere were a disaster for most traditional international sales agencies and distributors.

During Disruptions, Demand Outstripped Supply

Existing and new streamers buoyed by theater closures, stay-at-home orders, and screening restrictions were voraciously buying content in 2021 and 2022 to meet captive demand while most theatrical and all-rights buyers sat on the sidelines, unclear if or when theaters would return to normalcy.

Streamers were frantically licensing content to supply the millions relegated in their homes through remote working arrangements and lockdowns. However, with global production capabilities halted or severely restricted, demand far outstripped supply.

The territorial presales and distribution marketplace that existed just three years ago is becoming obsolete unless conditions rapidly improve.

Discover What All-Rights Distributors Paid for Indie Films in the Golden Age

As film distribution values retreat to levels not seen in many years, understanding what distributors previously paid to acquire independent films is crucial to navigating the current market.

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Film Financiers Hold Back Rights for Rich Suitors

The lifeblood of much of the independent world is now at risk since many financiers and producers keep worldwide rights open in the hopes of hitting the streaming lottery with a big deal from Netflix or Apple. But like all lotteries, the multimillion megadeal only goes to the lucky few.

Most deep-pocketed streaming services realized early into their respective film journeys that it is much cheaper and far easier to acquire in-vogue films at festivals than to develop and produce them in-house.

A near ironclad rule since the streamers hit the markets was if one streamer was interested, the others were too, resulting in more than a few bidding wars. In the end, a $20 million or even $30 million buy from Netflix, Amazon, and Apple is a rounding error as opposed to many independent distributors making ends meet in the ruins of a decimated theatrical market.

At a festival or market, you’re accountable to colleagues and counterparties that you see several times daily in and out of screenings and meetings. However, in a virtual Zoom environment where all you have to do is close your laptop, there is no urgency to make deals, especially in an atmosphere where Amazon, Apple, and Netflix are your competitors.

Notable Sundance Distribution Deals (2017-2023)

Amazon Steps Back from Film Festivals

Before Sundance this year, one of the big open questions was whether Amazon, as the fresh owners of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, would go on a spending spree acquiring theatrical rights for MGM and streaming rights for Prime Video. The answer to both was an emphatic no. 

Currently, MGM has 13 films on its 2023 slate and is not likely looking to get burned again in the heightened environment of a festival. 

Under more competent management, Amazon avoided the fool’s gold it fell for in 2019 when it spent $46 million at Sundance to acquire rights to just five films. The e-commerce giant only made one minor acquisition in 2023 for a small foreign-language wartime film. 

Burned by the massive miscalculations by its then-newly appointed head of the film division with $15 million and $14 million blunders for Late Night and Brittany Runs a Marathon in 2019, Amazon has seemingly abandoned film markets leaving it to Netflix, Apple, Miramax, Disney’s Searchlight, and A24.

FilmTake Away: Innovative Distribution Options Abound

One of the few silver linings in this transitional period for established and new producers, distributors, and sales agencies is that far more licensing options and variations are within reach.

Now that the cobwebs have been shaken off, there are more opportunities than ever to create different windows, rights, and terms than just a few years ago. Streamers are still untouchable in terms of upfront fees, but there are a ton of innovative options when approaching dealmaking.

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