Sundance Fails to Ignite an Apathetic Independent Film Market

By every measure, the theatrical market for independent films remains on life support after the first in-person Sundance Film Festival since the ‘before times’ in January 2020.

From the heady days between 2016 and 2019, when leading streaming services used deep pockets to marginalize major and medium-sized distributors alike, distribution values plummeted back to earth after the decimation of the theatrical market through widespread restrictions on the freedom of movement.

Sundance Fails to Ignite the Independent Film Market  

In the ‘before times,’ films acquired at Sundance between 2016 and 2019 found eager theatrical audiences domestically and internationally. During what now looks like a golden age, Sundance produced certified independent hits such as Manchester by The Sea and The Big Sick, which grossed $48 million and $43 million, respectively, to more modest specialty fare like Colette, which generated over $5 million at the US box office built on a platform releasing strategy that started with four theaters. 

In several key niches, distributors successfully found sizable theatrical markets for a diverse range of films. While some of Sundance’s momentum can rightly be attributed to streaming services hungry for content, traditional film buyers and sellers were thriving.

Of the 99 films screened at Sundance this year, 20 secured distribution before arriving in Utah. Both the number of films screening this year and distribution deals in place were down from the last in-person festival. Comparatively, of the 118 films that screened in 2020, 27 (or 23%) already had domestic distribution, up from 22 deals on 121 films (or 18%) in 2019.

Beyond a few headline-grabbing acquisitions, the latest installment of Sundance, which wrapped up at the end of January, was sluggish beyond even the most tepid expectations.

There was a trio of significant distribution deals, including perhaps the most commercial of the bunch, Fair Play, which Netflix nabbed in a bidding war for $20 million only to be lost in the bowels of the streamer’s cumbersome catalog. The other two were musical films, which have always been crowd-pleasers at Sundance, including Flora and Son, which Apple TV+ nabbed for $20 million, and Theater Camp, acquired by Disney’s Searchlight for $8 million.

Notable Sundance Distribution Deals (2017-2023)

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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.

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FilmTake Away: Rough Road for the Theatrical Market

After a two-year hiatus, it was no surprise that a record number of films that entered the festival and those selling outside didn’t have a domestic distributor attached. Besides the trio above, films that did secure distribution sold for much cheaper than in previous years.

The unpleasant news for most independent filmmakers, producers, and sales agencies is that films will continue to sell for much cheaper for the foreseeable future. After a remarkable stretch just three short years ago, the specialty theatrical market has remained dormant, especially domestically.