Sundance is an effective launch pad for American indies and documentaries, which do better at the box office than other festival launches.
While the independent specialty market is in decline, Sundance’s strong release track record continued last year. Sixteen movies that world premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival grossed over $2 million in domestic box office, the best performance in recent years.
These films (plus three Spotlight selections that premiered at other festivals) didn’t set a record for total performance. The 2017 edition total of $270 million included “Get Out,” which contributed close to $180 million, double the rest of the Sundance field. For 2018, the total for all releases is just under $200 million. That’s 70 percent ahead of 2016 from all premiered films.
2018 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL – GROSSES OF PREMIERED FILMS
|Won’t You Be My Neighbor?||22.8||Focus||No||Documentary Premiere|
|Sorry to Bother You||17.5||Annapurna||Yes||US Dramatic|
|Eighth Grade||13.5||A24||No||US Dramatic|
|Three Identical Strangers||12.3||Neon||Yes||US Documentary|
|Leave No Trace||6.0||Bleecker Street||Yes||Premiere|
|American Animals||2.9||The Orchard||Yes||US Dramatic|
|Hearts Beat Loud||2.4||Gunpowder & Sky||Yes||Premiere|
Here’s what we learned from the successes and failures of Sundance 2018.
Most films without distribution found a home
Around a third of last year’s films came in with a distributor (a handful were acquired just before the opening). Of the remaining 80-plus, more than 60 found buyers.
That is an incredibly high total for any festival not just domestically but worldwide. (Only a handful like Cannes and Venice see showings of most their slate in their countries post-festival. In total, 100 films found an afterlife in theaters, streaming, cable, and network television, and in one case, direct digital purchase. A majority of the titles saw vastly more exposure than they would have without this launch. 60 got multi-city releases in more than 10 theaters. Over 90 were released in at least New York and Los Angeles cinemas (some were documentaries playing one week-qualifying awards runs with little expectation of further play).
Foreign films are a challenge
The bulk that did not find a buyer were foreign-language titles from the World Dramatic or Documentary sections, or from the more experimental sections.
Half of 2018’s speciality releases with over a $1 million gross played Sundance
A $1 million gross can be great or a dud for an arthouse film, depending on its production and marketing cost. But it’s a benchmark reached by around 60 among those released last year. 33 of those showed in Park City (including non-premieres “The Death of Stalin,” “You Were Never Really Here,” and “The Rider”).
That’s a huge percentage. It hardly guarantees success for each deal. But it does mean that if someone acquires a film at Sundance, it is likely to showing up at a big city theater near you, with a better chance than a film that debuted at other festivals.
The biggest successes covered a broad range of genres, filmmakers, and formats
At one time, a Sundance film had a certain image — a first or second film, either dramatic or comedy, low-budget, most likely from a white, 20-something American male. That’s hardly an endangered species (breakout Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” was one of the biggest hits from last year’s premieres).
But look at the $2 million-plus grossers. The top one, A24’s production “Hereditary,” is a smart, acclaimed horror film. “Searching,” acquired by Sony unit Screen Gems, is a general audience thriller. “Sorry to Bother You” (Annapurna) and “Blindspotting” (Lionsgate) came out of the burgeoning Oakland-area minority filmmaking community. Two of the breakouts (“RBG” and “Leave No Trace”) were directed by women, although the successes from the festival from women filmmakers remained far below their representation among selections. Still, of the 16 premieres grossing $2 million or more, eight centered on women. So Sundance and its dedication to diversity has yielded a spillover effect.
Documentaries scored big at the box office
Most significant, three documentaries grossed over $12 million — top-grosser “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” totaled over $20 million — making up three of the top seven-grossing premieres and two of the top four acquisitions (“Neighbor” came in under the Focus banner). Though not reaching the (adjusted) heights of some of Michael Moore’s efforts or “The Inconvenient Truth” among others, three at this level the same year is unprecedented (TIFF fall premiere “Free Solo” has made it four).
So expect much of the most frantic bidders this year to chase and pay a premium for similar titles. That doesn’t mean that this year will show the same results. But buyers react most to what has worked in the recent rear view.
Sundance Film Festival
Smart buyers, stupid mistakes
Reports on sales activity at Sundance dominate entertainment media coverage more than reviews, awards or celebrity sightings. But last year was typical: much of what was really going on wasn’t evident.
2018 Sundance Acquisitions, as always, were front-loaded with pre-festival buys announced before or during the festival, as well as the front-loaded sexiest titles lucky enough to land in a bidding war. Most did not report sales prices, which were down considerably with deep-pocketed Netflix out of the bidding. Buyers were avoiding the 2017 fate of “Patti Cake$,” which sold to Fox Searchlight for $9.5 million and grossed only $1 million.
Searchlight increased in-house production to avoid having to overpay for titles. A year later, 2018 sales didn’t reach the $12-million heights of “Mudbound” (Netflix) and “The Big Sick” (Amazon). The higher the price, the more likely word spills. Reported as the most expensive buy was $10-million “Assassination Nation” (Neon), which could only muster $2 million in gross.
Four $5-million range buys yielded varying results. Sony’s “Searching” yielded $75 million worldwide for the John Cho-starrer. “Sorry to Bother You” added the costs of a wide release and came in second-best among acquired titles. Sony Pictures Classics’ “Puzzle” and Bleecker’s “Colette” weren’t breakout, but weren’t bad bets.
Remember buying continues for months after Sundance is over. Generally, those titles still available don’t start getting deals until March or later. Titles like the cult favorite “Mandy” and “Wildlife” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, as well as the award-winning documentaries “Minding the Gap” and “Hale County This Morning This Evening” didn’t get sold until much later.
Studios Should Keep Sundance in Mind
Everyone recognizes the historical influence of the festival in elevating American independent film and in discovering directors who go on to major studio careers. Last year’s successes remind that all gold is not to be found in studio franchises. After “Get Out” and “Hereditary,” studio marketers might consider Sundance launches for smart horror titles like “A Quiet Place” or “Annihilation.”
Sundance has been showcasing a wide range of minority filmmakers since its inception. While women still struggle to gain a toehold in wide-release Hollywood productions, minority directors (not just black, but Latino, and Asian) are becoming more prominent among top-grossing studio films. And films about women are gaining more prominence in mainstream films.
The number of day-and-date streaming titles keeps rising
Of the 100 titles that opened in theaters more than a third had some form of streaming either from the start of their theatrical dates or within a month. Increasingly this is the ideal way to accrue revenue (a few skipped theaters entirely). The only parallel release to break the $1 million mark was “Mandy” (RLJE), which is typical of the smaller-scale independent film that takes the Video on Demand route. Yet dual success remains atypical (though Netflix’s “Roma,” which debuted at fall festivals, looks to have reached $3 million). These purchases get films more exposure and the producers some financial benefit from their investment.
Netflix, which made the biggest 2017 deal with “Mudbound,” actually ended up being a major buyer despite not getting involved in the initial mix. They wound up acquiring six films from the slate, including drama “The Kindergarten Teacher” and documentary “Shirkers.” In-house productions “Private Life” and “Come Sundays” played at the festival as well. All four of these titles had limited theatrical play.
One of the biggest buys last year was HBO’s $7-million acquisition of “The Tale.” The film never played in theaters, but still made many film critic ten best lists for 2018.
Sundance films tend to open early and risk losing year-end impact
Many awards titles debut at Sundance–among them “Shine,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Precious” and “Get Out” — as well as many high-profile documentaries like “Three Identical Strangers,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “RBG.” We’ll see the Oscar nominations results next week, which will likely see Sundance dominate the documentary category.
Despite their acclaim at the festival and on their release, “Eighth Grade,” “Leave No Trace,” “Hereditary,” Sorry to Bother You,” “Blindspotting” –along with the non-premieres “Death of Stalin,” “You Were Never Really Here,” and “The Rider” –have mostly fallen to the wayside among potential Oscar contenders. Finally, they all opened fairly early.
Nearly all top Sundance films are released before the September festivals start the awards season. In the past, Sundance Oscar- winners delayed their releases until the fall. For a myriad of reasons, including a better chance of maximizing grosses in a less competitive period, the best titles now come out sooner, sacrificing some of the attention they could get later by chasing uncertain glory.