Talk of the demise of the Sundance Film Festival as an incubator for audience-friendly independent films appears to have been greatly exaggerated.
When titles from this year’s 40th anniversary festival weren’t flying off the shelves by the third day of screenings, some observers saw it as yet another sign that Hollywood was in dire straits. The festival was no longer featuring independent films that could go on to be commercially viable, the thinking went.
Yet when the festival concluded over the weekend, it appeared that studios had found a number of films that they were willing to bet would connect with moviegoers.
As has been the case in recent years, streaming services made the flashiest deals. Netflix paid a reported $17 million for the horror film “It’s What’s Inside” and Amazon/MGM bought “My Old Ass,” starring Aubrey Plaza, for $15 million. “Skywalkers: A Love Story,” a documentary about a Russian couple who save their marriage by scaling skyscrapers, was acquired by Netflix, while Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns the Max streaming service, is negotiating a $15 million sale for “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve story,” a documentary about the “fall and rise” of the actor best known for his big-screen portrayal of Superman.
In addition, Netflix is in exclusive negotiations for worldwide rights to the documentary “Will and Harper,” which tracks the road trip taken by the longtime friends Will Ferrell and Harper Steele, who transitioned to a woman at the age of 61.
The traditional studios got in on the act, too. Reminiscent of the headiest days of Sundance, an all-night bidding war ended with Searchlight Pictures’ acquiring Jesse Eisenberg’s film “A Real Pain,” in which he stars opposite Kieran Culkin, for $10 million. The independent distributor Neon bought Steven Soderbergh’s ghost story “Presence” for $5 million.
Deborah McIntosh, co-head of WME’s independent film financing and sales group, said this year’s marketplace was likely to end up on par with 2023 in terms of sales volume.
“I think that there’s really plenty of things coming out now that the festival dust is settling, where buyers feel really excited about the films they can make money on,” she said in an interview. “Ultimately, the crop of movies is very strong, and I think the buying market has increased year on year and hopefully is settling back in a good spot.”
The Sundance Film Festival has long been seen as a barometer for the health of the film industry. In the past year, after two strikes that shut down the business for close to six months, film insiders hoped that a robust market would emerge in which an extensive number of movies would be snapped up and eventually made available to the public.
“My hope is that the one positive thing about the strike is that a lot of movies that might have struggled shouldn’t, because there are so many holes in the release schedule,” the producer Jason Blum said during a news conference at the start of the festival. “I hope a bunch of Sundance movies wind up in theaters quickly in the next six months.”
Still, all is not idyllic in the independent film market. Last week, Sundance convened a three-hour summit where 60 industry leaders from across the spectrum of indie film — distributors, producers and sales agents — gathered to brainstorm on the issues facing the business. According to one attendee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the event was off limits to the media, one focus was on how best to support up-and-coming independent filmmakers, who often go on to land at the helm of some of Hollywood’s biggest movies. The primary concern was that while films at Sundance were still being bought for larger sums, the smaller million-dollar purchases that used to represent the majority of sales are no longer as abundant.
“We are well beyond the post-studio era and as it turns out, we are well beyond the post-streaming era,” said Tom Quinn, chief executive of Neon, referencing the go-go days when first studios and then streaming services often overpaid for talent and set excessively large budgets for films.
Yet, he added, despite the contraction in the market, Sundance has remained steady.
“It’s really interesting to see the consistency of Sundance,” he said, adding that certain films from this year’s festival “could be put into Sundance 20 years ago and they would be as relevant then as they are today, a certain timeless notion of what independent filmmaking is, and that’s really exciting.”