What Buzzy Buys at Sundance Say About Struggling Specialty Film Market

With its first in-person gathering since January 2020, you would think the 2023 Sundance Film Festival represents a triumphant return to form for the film market.

But as the fest concludes this weekend, its most notable sales represent how much the market has changed on the theatrical side.

The biggest price tags to come out of the fest so far were for psychological thriller “Fair Play” and relationship drama “Flora and Son,” which sold for $20 million each to Netflix and Apple, respectively.

That price alone exceeds what more than half of the films up for multiple nominations at the Academy Awards have grossed domestically in theaters, including some major studio releases.

Despite hailing from highly lauded directors like Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and Steven Spielberg (basically every classic blockbuster), Paramount’s “Babylon” and Universal’s “The Fabelmans” significantly struggled alongside other awards hopefuls to stand out at the box office during the holiday season as some critically adored films have fared even worse.

Searchlight’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to 2017’s “Three Billboards” from the same distributor, will be one of the most prominent films at the Oscars, with nine nominations, an amount shared by Netflix’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Yet “Banshees” has yet to break $10 million domestically, well below the haul “Three Billboards” once earned.

Then there’s Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking.” Released by United Artists, MGM’s distribution label, it has just barely scratched $1 million.

For a stark comparison, look at experimental horror film “Skinamarink.” Shot on a $15K crowdfunded budget from a first-time filmmaker with long shots of ceilings and little dialogue, the film has already earned $1.5 million from a limited Jan. 15 release through IFC after it went viral among horror fans due to one festival’s accidental leak of digital files.

Genre fare like horror and sci-fi is still doing quite well in theaters, which may explain why A24 is locking down a deal for Australian horror film “Talk to Me,” which premiered at Sundance, for a sum “in the high seven-figure range,” per reports.

Horror continues to be a fitting match for A24. Most of its 2022 theatrical gross was earned through horror movies like Gen-Z thriller “Bodies Bodies Bodies” and Ti West’s dual slasher movies “X” and “Pearl.”

In 2022, A24 outgrossed Focus Features, United Artists and Searchlight, among other underperforming labels primarily known for awards fare. Directing duo Daniels’ sci-fi/fantasy joint “Everything Everywhere All at Once” played the biggest role in cementing 2022 as A24’s best year yet, earning more than $100 million globally. It is also the most nominated film overall at the upcoming Oscars ceremony.

A24 sports massive awards clout and is the most nominated single studio at this year’s Oscars, with 18 noms in total.

Overall, genre-specific movies are what’s doing the heavy lifting for A24 and its competitors. Just like “Everything Everywhere,” culinary thriller “The Menu” accounted for over half of Searchlight’s 2022 gross domestically, despite the film’s total absence from the Oscars, per Comscore. That may explain the $8 million Searchlight forked over at Sundance for “Theater Camp.”

In his review for soon-to-be Netflix film “Fair Play,” Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman described it as “one of the rare Sundance films that could totally break through in the real world” before highlighting how “Tár” and “The Fabelmans” have “struggled” to do so, ultimately designating “Fair Play” as a “special commodity” because of that.

If streamers continue to outbid such films and take home the biggest awards, as Apple did by earning best picture at the Academy through “CODA” last year, it’s unlikely the situation is going to get any easier for prestige theatrical films.

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