Sundance Wrap Up: All the Mega Deals and Controversy

On Jan. 22, the sales agents of WME Independent braced themselves for an all-night negotiation at the Sundance Film Festival. Once a staple of major film festivals, where million-dollar price tags soar as high as the altitude in the Utah mountains, these kind of marathon bidding wars had gone digital during the pandemic, or disappeared nearly entirely.

For the first time since 2020, the agents stocked their chalet with pizza bites, cookies and sugary soda to fuel these talks. Their mission was to find the right studio home for “Theater Camp,” a backstage send-up that scored a raucous reception at Sundance, where co-directors Nick Leiberman and Molly Gordon were joined by cast-members Ben Platt and Noah Galvin. The film entertained offers and fielded interest from several bidders, including some streamers. Deborah McIntosh, co-head of WME Independent Film, said the team was exhilarated to be back in the room together with potential buyers after COVID-19 forced the previous two Sundances online.

“It’s a Zoom generation we’ve gotten ourselves into, and that’s fine and it’s efficient. But nothing can replace Searchlight Pictures showing up to the ‘Theater Camp’ sale meeting with a box of ‘confiscated alcohol,’ which references a funny scene in the movie,” she says. 

The box of booze was a winning touch. Searchlight won distribution rights to “Theater Camp” for $8 million. It was one of several splashy pacts to come out of Sundance, where “Fair Play,” an erotic drama sold to Netflix for $20 million and John Carney’s “Flora and Son,” an uplifting look at a single mother and her teenage son bonding through their shared love of music, sold to Apple for just under $20 million. Other films that will leave the festival with distribution include “A Little Prayer,” which sold to Sony Pictures Classics, and the documentaries “Kokomo City” and “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” both of which were picked up by Magnolia. But as Sundance closes its first in-person edition in three years, there are several films that are still looking for buyers.

“The market is historically slow,” says John Sloss, a veteran sales agent and manager, who runs Cinetic Media. “I think these festivals are going to continue to be more elongated. We’ve all gotten a little older and lost our taste for all-night negotiating sessions.”

Part of the reason that the market never reached a fever pitch is that major players such as Netflix, Warner Bros. Discovery and Amazon aren’t writing big checks as freely as the once did. A newfound cost-consciousness seems to have gripped the media business as they deal with a slow-down in subscription growth for their streaming services. But at least the streamers made some noise on the ground with “Fair Play” and “Flora and Son” after mostly sitting out the Toronto market in September.

“The mix of buyers and the level of dealmaking shows that the market is super healthy,” notes CAA Media Finance’s Christine Hsu. WME’s McIntosh also highlighted the range of bidders – from deep-pocketed Apple to the indie platform Mubi — had all acquired films at different price levels. She called this diversity of deals “essential to the survival” of the art house market. A robust studio release calendar for the upcoming year, she says, reminds audiences “that going to the movies is a form of recreation they enjoy doing on the weekends. If we can get them accustomed to having fun in this traditional setting, they’re not just going to want to see the Marvel movies. They’ll want the counterprogramming.“

Still, the theatrical box office for indie films remains depressed, having failed to regain its pre-pandemic stride. There have been a few breakouts like “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” but even glowing reviews couldn’t turn “The Banshees of Inisherin” or “Tár” into hits. That track record made some studios wary of committing to movies that were artistically daring, but commercially risky.

Ryan Heller, executive V.P. of film and documentary at Topic Studios, came to Sundance with three films, “Infinity Pool,” “Shortcomings” and “Theater Camp.” One of those movies, “Infinity Pool,” premiered having already locked up a distribution deal with Neon. The other two were looking for a home — “Theater Camp” sold to Searchlight, while “Shortcomings” is still negotiating with potential buyers. Heller believes that having an in-person festival helped stimulate interest in his films. “There was a palpable sense of excitement about getting back into the communal experience of watching movies,” he says. “How movies play in those theaters helps sales. A lot of the projects that sold early tended to be things that audiences had an instant reaction to.”

Look for the negotiations to extend into the next few weeks or even months. Other potential bidders say they are hoping for the prices to drop as more time passes. That’s when they plan to strike.

“A lot of movies were incredibly expensive,” says Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics. “They have huge budgets for a Sundance movie. A lot of these films cost between $10 million to $20 million, and that’s a lot to pay for a movie.”

While the market is typically the conversation driver at the festival, this year it was overshadowed by an accessibility controversy. Jurors for the U.S. Dramatic Competition walked out of the premiere of “Magazine Dreams” because the festival was unable to provide a working caption device for deaf juror Marlee Matlin. Fellow jurors Jeremy O. Harris and Eliza Hittman walked out in solidarity with Matlin. The episode has shed an unflattering light on Sundance’s accessibility practices.

The fact that the festival was relying solely on closed captioning devices — viewed as outdated and inadequate technology in the disability community — has rankled many.

A better approach, some say, would have been for Sundance to require all filmmakers to provide an open caption version and to host at least one or two open caption screenings for each film during the festival run as do other festivals like Hot Docs. (Most films screen multiple times throughout the festival). Sources say the festival did not mandate an open caption version and merely “requested it very late in the process,” according to one knowledgeable source. “Magazine Dreams” was one of many films that did not have an open caption version on hand when it premiered.

“The idea of an open captioned screening is not nearly perhaps as out of this world as it maybe was three or four years ago,” says “Crip Camp” director James LeBrecht, a disability rights advocate who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. “Sundance should really take the lead from the community for which this serves by saying, ‘The highest quality experience for people is an open caption version. And that is what we will provide.’ “

Richie Siegel, co-founder of Inevitable Foundation, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of disabled screenwriters, was aghast by the conversation that sprung up in the wake of the walkout, with some suggesting that open captions will hurt potential sales.

“If you’re worried that putting captions on your film is going to hurt people wanting to buy the film, maybe the film’s bad. Maybe there’s a bigger problem there,” Siegel says. “I don’t think it’s the captions that are going to turn a buyer off. I think that the discourse around this shows a lot of people’s true colors. As for the argument that open captions are expensive, if we looked at the budget of these films, I would imagine more money was spent on chips, sandwiches, Uber rides. I mean, I can make a list of probably 100 things in the budget that would stack up more than the cost of captions.”

Sundance will conduct a debrief after the festival to pinpoint what is could have done differently to avoid the jury walkout and subsequent backlash. The festival has invited LeBrecht to participate.

“It’s OK to say there were some real fails and to ask why were there fails there and what what can be instituted to take care of that now?” LeBrecht adds.

Although many executives and agents said they were happy to be back in-person, they noted that Sundance seemed more sparsely attended. Major screenings were not always full, lines seemed shorter and restaurant reservations, usually impossible to come by during the festival, were more plentiful.

But there were plenty of other signs of Sundance re-emerging after its prolonged hiatus. A party for Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her film “You Hurt My Feelings” boasted a line around the block at Main Street’s Macro House. The humble corners of Butcher’s Chop House restaurant were littered with stars like Jonathan Majors and Taylour Paige. Moguls like Mark Burnett and Kevin Ulrich brought the dance party to Sundance, attending a pop-up of nightlife institution Tao on the outskirts of town. Watching A-listers duck into heated igloos and sip Whispering Angel while renowned artist Diplo played DJ made it feel like there was never a three-year absence.

Maybe next year there will be even more to celebrate.

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