Hits and Misses: Anthony Kaufman Surveys the Sundance Class of ’17
The headlines said it all: “Hollywood Faces August Death March,” “Bummer Summer” and “Beleaguered Box Office.”
OK, Hollywood had a tough year, but does that necessarily apply to independent films? Well, as the saying goes, a receding tide sinks all boats. And so it was in 2017: If people were going out to fewer movies and streaming more episodic content at home, it affected both indie films and tentpoles.
But if we look back at the films that premiered at Sundance 2017, there are a few instances to inspire hope: The Big Sick, of course, was the big one; Wind River, perhaps the last film to ever be released successfully by the Weinstein Company, had earned more than $33.7 million at the box office at press time; and Miguel Arteta’s anti-Trump satire Beatriz at Dinner, starring Salma Hayek, grossed more than $7 million and played in 683 theaters for 17 weeks, courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
And despite the Netflixification of indie film, more films were acquired and released in theaters by distributors out of Sundance’s 16-film Dramatic Competition than last year. This may be a testament to the quality of the films, but it reaffirms the perennial importance of the theatrical release to drive awareness and eyeballs down the line. As Amazon’s Bob Berney can attest, online audiences “are looking for films that have played festivals, been reviewed, and are in the zeitgeist, rather than something they’ve never heard of.” Such deals were good news for independent filmmakers, who got supportive releases from top-notch distributors. But the less-than-stellar outcomes of those theatrical runs may not augur well for the marketplace. If Amazon and Netflix were driving up acquisition prices at Sundance, the realities of distribution may start to bring them down. Thus, for filmmakers, financial upsides may be lower, even as the chances for actual distribution are greater.
By our count, only two of the Sundance 17 were bona fide hits (The Hero, Ingrid Goes West); three went straight to Netflix (Burning Sands, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, To the Bone); and the others had mixed results, earning low-to-high six-figure theatrical box office (in descending order: Landline, Patti Cake$, Brigsby Bear, Beach Rats, Band Aid, Crown Heights and Walking Out). As of our print deadline, Novitiate, acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, had a decent opening, but it’s too early to tell where it will land. (Of the others, two — Golden Exits, The Yellow Birds — haven’t been acquired at all and the remaining film, Roxanne Roxanne, was acquired but had not yet been released.)
The previous year’s Sundance Dramatic Competition slate was a bit more robust, with multimillion-dollar-grossing films such as The Birth of a Nation, Southside with You and Swiss Army Man. This year’s less-than-a-million box office grosses were passable for shrewdly released indie dramas, but they’re certainly not getting anyone excited.
Trends are always difficult to confirm, but there was one that appeared irrefutable: Documentaries suffered at the box office. Despite the immense quality and critical praise for Sundance’s documentary program, very, very few docs emerged as movie-going events. As The Orchard’s Paul Davidson admitted, “The general movie-going public has gotten used to seeing docs on the small screen.” And with ancillary sales tied to theatrical business, we saw films like Sundance crowd-pleaser Step (see below) and dozens of others not penetrating the culture as much as was hoped. It’s ironic given the activist social climate, but docs have apparently become a victim of their own streaming success.
Perhaps the other takeaway of the year is a familiar one: Don’t overspend — in budgets, acquisition prices or distribution campaigns. “Spend smartly and with rigor,” as one executive said. Because in today’s unpredictable entertainment waters, once you take on water, you can sink fast. (As Berney notes, “If you can’t make an independent film an event, it’s gone quickly.”)
Below, a sampling of films from Sundance 2017, which may offer some possible lessons to keep everyone afloat in the years to come.
The Big Sick
The Film: Based on events from the true life of Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani and developed with producer Judd Apatow, The Big Sick follows Kumail as he falls in love with Emily (Zoe Kazan), a grad student who contracts a mysterious illness. When Emily falls into a coma, Kumail must figure out his feelings for her while contending with Emily’s parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). Immediately heralded after its Sundance premiere as a crowd-pleaser and “by turns romantic, rueful and hilarious” (Variety), the film arrived as an upbeat, though resonant, rejoinder to dire current events.
Financing: In December 2015, Glen Basner’s FilmNation fully financed the reportedly $5 million budget in exchange for rights to all international sales.
Deals: One of Sundance’s most sought-after films, Sick landed one of the festival’s biggest deals. Amazon Studios reportedly won a bidding war against Netflix, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, buying North American rights for $12 million.
Distribution: Before the film is released, Kumail is joined by Ray Romano, Kurt Braunholer and Aidy Bryant for a touring stand-up showcase called “The Big Sick Comedy Tour” to raise awareness for the movie. Then on June 23, Amazon and Lionsgate open the film in five theaters, earning a stellar $84,315 average. Reviews are fantastic (Metacritic rating: 86), with marketing that emphasizes both the cross-cultural comedy (as well as Judd Apatow’s name) and also the serious illness aspects of the film. (“We didn’t hide it, though we tried to think of another title,” admits Bob Berney, head of marketing and distribution at Amazon. “But we didn’t want it to be considered a straight comedy, and I think that’s why it resonated throughout the summer and awards season.”) It also helped that Kumail was deeply engaged with the release, traveling everywhere with the film and personally answering every social media post.
In its fourth week, the film expands to 255 theaters, earning $3,576,646; by week five, the film goes out wide to 2,597 theaters, coming in at #5 at the weekend box office, between Baby Driver and Wonder Woman. In August, the severe box-office slump actually boosts the film, because audiences choose to see proven commodities over Hollywood’s sad new crop. After 11 weeks in release, the distributors actually re-expand the movie from 706 to 1,270 engagements.
Grosses: After 18 weeks in release, the film earned almost $43 million at the box office. Accompanied by Oscar buzz and widespread feel-good vibes, The Big Sick also drew major ancillary business, rivaling that of the year’s major studio releases. On iTunes, for example, it climbed the charts, ranking second of all releases after three weeks, above Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Upshot: Amazon and Berney continued their supreme reign of the indie box office (after last year’s big winner Manchester by the Sea); Kumail Nanjiani launched to the big leagues; and Apatow reaffirmed his status as a rom-com kingmaker.
The Film: Brett Haley, director of adult weepie I’ll See You In My Dreams, writes a new script for one of that film’s costars, Sam Elliott. The story of a Western icon, The Hero tracks an aging actor named Lee Hayden (Elliott) as he faces a surprise cancer diagnosis, which then propels him to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Shot in and around Los Angeles for only 18 days, the film was produced by Houston King (Results), Sam Bisbee (Infinitely Polar Bear) and Erik Rommesmo (I’ll See You in My Dreams) and drew mixed reviews at its Sundance premiere (“mushy feel-good pablum,” according to Variety).
Financing: Haley and producer Houston King worked together to attach name talent (Elliott, Nick Offerman). Agencies Gersh and WME went out to financiers: Northern Lights, which backed the profitable I’ll See You In My Dreams, and Park Pictures (Person to Person, Other People) provide equal parts equity: Total budget landed at more than $1 million.
Deals: After the film’s Sundance premiere, The Orchard was aggressive out of the gate. “We got the sense very quickly they were going to be the most passionate believers in the film,” said King, “as well as true partners with us in the film’s distribution.” The Orchard acquires North American rights for around $3 million.
Distribution: In early summer (June 9), The Orchard opened the film in four theaters, earning a respectable, but less-than-stellar, $11,329 per-screen average in Los Angeles and New York. However, as producer King attested, The Orchard “did not lose faith in the film and knew it could continue playing across the country.” Explained The Orchard’s Paul Davidson, “People love Sam Elliott. He’s a four-quadrant actor. The movie gave people an opportunity to spend two hours with a guy that every demo seems to love.” The film expanded to more than 400 theaters in its fourth week, playing well in the Midwest and Southern “cowboy” states such as Arizona and Texas. Despite tepid reviews (Metacritic rating: 61) and a “modest P&A budget,” according
Davidson, the crowd-pleaser was boosted by strong word-of-mouth.
Grosses: After 18 weeks in release, total box-office reached just over $4 million in October — an exceptionally strong showing for a film that opened with less than $12,000 per-screen averages. Digital and cable sales are “amazing,” said Davidson. “It will be our highest cable revenue-generating title in the history of the company.” With a strong showing at Walmarts and Redboxes, coupled with revenue from cable and digital platforms, Davidson said ancillary revenue will come close to the theatrical gross.
Upshot: Feel-good indies may have the best chance to break out in today’s competitive marketplace. And specialized distributors should not underestimate the importance of Southern and Midwestern markets — with the right kind of film.
Ingrid Goes West
The Film: Aubrey Plaza plays Ingrid Thorburn, a young woman who moves to L.A. to befriend her Instagram obsession, a Los Angeles socialite and “influencer” played by Elizabeth Olsen. After a quick bond is forged between these unlikeliest of buddies, their relationship quickly goes south. The social satire wins a Sundance Best Screenwriting Prize for first-time filmmaker Matt Spicer and his cowriter, David Branson Smith, and also mixed reviews (Indiewire grades it a “C”). But the film slays on social media (e.g., “#IngridGoesWest sounds awesome. Definitely want to see this one. #sundance”).
Financing: After CAA sent the script to 141 Entertainment, that company was so taken with the project, it, along with Star Thrower Entertainment (Wind River), rushed to put together financing from investors in about a week, according to 141 principal exec Adam Mirels. “It wasn’t a crazy budget,” he said, “and the foreign sales numbers made it seem like a relatively safe investment.”
Deals: After a successful Sundance premiere, buyers rushed in. Looking to make a name for itself with youth-driven content, Neon, the upstart distribution company led by Tom Quinn and Tim League, beat out the competitors, and scooped up North American rights. Trades pegged the deal at $3 million. Producers could have taken a bigger cash price from a nontheatrical buyer, but they met their bottom line with Neon (“Everyone made a little money,” said Mirels) and satisfied the filmmaker’s desire for a theatrical release. Meanwhile, Universal purchased rights for the rest of the world.
Distribution: After Sundance, the film played at numerous festivals (Provincetown, Los Angeles, BAMcinemaFest, Nantucket) and word-of-mouth screenings to help spread the word, with the actors often in attendance. During the dog days of early August, Neon opened the film in three theaters, earning a strong $45,100 per-screen average. On August 25 (the day that Hurricane Harvey hit Texas), Neon went out to 647 theaters, pushing the film past the $1 million mark in its third week. Targeting content crea-tors and the same online influencers featured in the film — typical headline: “Aubrey Plaza on Ingrid Goes West and How Instagram Feeds Obsession” (Fast Company)—the film tapped into current debates about social media and played in theaters for more than 10 weeks.
Grosses: Despite the toughest of times at the August box office, the film drew a respectable more than $3 million in ticket sales — a good enough win for Neon’s second release and the filmmakers.
Upshot: Director Matt Spicer is in high demand, already working on the script for Disney’s reboot of The Rocketeer; Neon is off and running; and the film’s independent financiers have money in the bank for more indie projects.
A Ghost Story
The Film: Director David Lowery teams up with his previous Ain’t Them Bodies Saints collaborators — producers Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston and stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara — for this existential drama about a ghost who returns to his suburban home to console his bereft wife, only to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away. A critics’ favorite at Sundance, A Ghost Story was heralded by the trades as “beautifully conceived” and an “extraordinary mood piece.”
Financing: Made with money they earned on Lowery’s Disney job, Pete’s Dragon, Lowery, Halbrooks and other close collaborators put in the less-than-a-million dollars to make the film. Visual effects company Weta also became a partner on the project in exchange for its services. “Undoubtedly, those shots would have cost more than the whole budget of the film,” noted Halbrooks of Weta’s FX contributions. “We knew it was a risk — it was such a strange idea. If we were going to do it, we were going to share the risk,” he explained.
Deals: Weeks before Sundance, A24 purchased worldwide distribution rights based on a promo reel.
Distribution: Hot off their Moonlight Oscar victory, A24 launched the film in four theaters on July 7 and earned a strong $26,008 per-theater average. The company embraced several unique and arguably less-commercial marketing efforts: a minimalist poster, with no pictures of the actors; an ethereal trailer, light on plot with a few select critics’ pullquotes; and an immersive live-action experience called “A Ghost Store,” designed by Steven Jos Phan and digital design shop Watson DG, located in lower Manhattan. Graham Retzik, head of marketing for A24, told Adweek the novel promotional project was meant to emphasize the film’s “playful yet contemplative” tone. While the film and its marketing drew plenty of critical and journalist love (Metacritic rating: 84), the film’s fourth week, 329-theater expansion earned just $368,289.
Grosses: After 12 weeks in release, the film made $1,596,371 at the U.S. box office. Though not exactly a breakout, the film was never intended to be a crossover hit. The film performed well in the U.K., with a $174,000 opening in August. The film also received theatrical runs in Australia, South Korea and Japan, with other territories waiting in the wings. According to A24, iTunes was a solid performer, as was a U.K. digital release; DVD was also strong.
Upshot: Lowery burnished his auteur status and A24 confirmed its reputation as a renegade distributor of outside-the-box films (along with its other Sundance buy, Menashe, which earned a similar $1.7 million). While no one is going to get rich on A Ghost Story, the Dallas-based creators remain committed to making both larger films (Lowery’s Old Man and the Gun) and microbudget efforts (having wrapped another this past summer).
The Little Hours
The Film: Directed by Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, Joshy) and starring known commodities Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza as medieval nuns, the film follows the so-called holy young women as their convent spins out of control and into debauchery with the arrival of a hired hand (Dave Franco). The film plays in Sundance’s Midnight section, delighting audiences — and critics, as well (“a medieval convent comedy for the megaplex crowd,” says Variety).
Financing: Bow and Arrow Entertainment, an L.A.-based film and media company, and StarStream Media, which also backed Baena’s previous features, provided initial financing to the film, which shot on location in Italy. Additional executive producers included Exhibit Entertainment and Foton Pictures. While the film was in post-production, Canada-based Concourse Media took international sales on the film before last year’s Cannes market.
Deals: Toward the tail end of Sundance, emerging digital-minded distributor Gunpowder & Sky acquired North American and key international territories for a reported “low seven figures.” “We loved the sense of humor,” said Janet Brown, EVP distribution at Gunpowder & Sky. “Given our strong internal capabilities with viral video, we felt that if we matched the creative risks of the production with some good creative risks in the distribution, the film had a strong chance to succeed.”
Distribution: Gunpowder & Sky planned its widest release yet, but started slow. On June 30, the film opened on two screens for the highest per-theater average of the weekend (at $28,338). In week three, they pushed the film hard out to 105 theaters, relying on their TV-familiar name cast; raunchy humor — a red-band trailer got more than 16 million views — and other digital marketing strengths. According to Brown, a video of Plaza smoking pot with nuns at Cut was a massive success, hitting 13 million views. “We knew the audience for the film was on social, and we worked hard to hit them from all sides,” she said.
Grosses: After 11 weeks in release, the film earned a solid $1,647,175, but given the acquisition and P&A costs, final grosses could have been higher for Gunpowder & Sky. The film performed well on transactional VOD, staying in the top 20 for two weeks. “We are pleased with where our TVOD numbers are coming out,” said Brown. And the film will be launching on Epix just before the holidays. Added Brown, “We can all agree that raunchy nuns and Christmas go together brilliantly.”
Upshot: Comedy is (still) king.
The Film: Directed by video essayist Kogonada and starring John Cho, the film follows the son of a renowned architect who finds himself stranded in Columbus, Indiana — a small Midwestern city celebrated for its modernist buildings. When the man strikes up a friendship with a young architecture enthusiast (Haley Lu Richardson), the two explore both the town and their own conflicted emotions. The Sundance NEXT section entry drew strong reviews, with Variety calling it “lovely and tender, marking Kogonada as an auteur to watch.”
Financing: Fully financed by private equity through Danielle Renfrew Behrens’s Superlative Films, a boutique equity fund and production company (Lucky), the movie shot on location for 18 days in Columbus, Indiana, with a budget of less than $1 million.
Deals: After looking at their Sundance offers, Behrens and the other filmmakers ultimately decided to self-distribute with the help of Sundance’s Creative Distribution Fellowship for two reasons: 1) they believed they would be more likely to recoup the budget of the film and 2) it was important to retain full creative control of the release, according to Behrens. As part of the fellowship, Sundance offered a grant of low six figures, which included cash for P&A and other in-kind support. The Fellowship also pre-negotiated mid-to-high five figure US SVOD deals with Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, with each company being able to bid above this floor if they chose. (Hulu wound up taking the US SVOD rights for Columbus.)
Distribution: On August 4, Columbus opened in two theaters, earning a solid $13,410 per-theater average, driven by strong reviews (Metacritic: 89) and festival play (BAMcinemaFest et al). Working with publicity firm Cinetic Media and theatrical booker mTuckman media, the film rolled out slowly, targeting an array of niche audiences (architecture aficionados, modern art and design fans and general specialty audience). According to mTuckman’s Michael Tuckman, they relied on strong word of mouth rather than their limited advertising budget.
“Theaters from all four corners were very receptive to the film,” said Tuckman. “I was very pleasantly surprised by how the film did in Los Angeles.” After opening at L.A.’s Nuart, the film played for an unprecedented seven more weeks at the Landmark Theater on Pico. “That’s just mind blowing,” he added. Secondary and tertiary markets such as Cincinnati, Ohio; Lafayette, Indiana; and Wilmette, Illinois also picked up the film. “I think it speaks to the film connecting with both major market audiences and those in ‘fly-over’ country who saw it as somewhat of a mirror to lives they may lead.”
Grosses: After 14 weeks in release, the film earned just over a million dollars, besting many of the more star-heavy Sundance entries and defying all expectations for a “hypnotically paced” indie drama.
Upshot: Despite a self-distribution experience that was “extremely challenging and time consuming,” admits Behrens, “we are constantly looking for ways to make this space more sustainable. We think that this direct-to-consumer model is going to be a big part of that moving forward.”
The Film: Set against the backdrop of the police shooting of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the inspiring documentary follows Baltimore girls in a high-school step dance team during their senior year. A rousing crowd-pleaser at Sundance, the film won a Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking. Audiences and trades gushed: “Emotionally involving,” “infectiously entertaining,” and “unabashedly joyful.”
Financing: For several years, first-time film director Amanda Lipitz shot with random local crews, paying day-rates, until she had enough material for a two-and-a-half-minute trailer. With her connections in the New York theater world, she used the trailer to recruit support from producer Scott Rudin and director-producer Steven Cantor, who signed on as exec producer and producer respectively and helped raise money, along with Geralyn White Dreyfous and Dan Cogan’s Impact Partners. Grants from the Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Baltimore Ravens and the Goldseker Foundation also came in for a total budget around $1 million.
Deals: After the film’s rousing Sundance debut, a number of distribution offers, of all types and sizes, were put forward. Capitalizing on the fervor, William Morris Endeavor negotiated a reported $4 million deal from Fox Searchlight in exchange for worldwide and remake rights. As part of the deal, the producers also gave a donation to the school depicted in the film and set up 19 college scholarships for all of the girls.
Distribution: After Step ran a summer marathon of film festivals, racking up Audience Awards at AFI Docs and Wisconsin, Searchlight opened moderately aggressively on August 4 across 29 theaters. The studio booked some high-profile media gigs — the team performed on The Today Show — but per-screen average is only $5,051. Strong reviews and word-of-mouth in various markets helped keep the film going for several weeks, but it was never at the expected Hoop Dreams level of success.
Grosses: After 10 weeks in release, total box-office reached $1,146,292. In a different time, those figures might seem like a big disappointment, but aside from An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, Step was the only other Sundance documentary to surpass a million dollars at the box office. Searchlight’s marketing helped the film get more eyeballs on digital, cable and DVD.
Upshot: Distributors are left scratching their heads about what to do with the next Sundance hit documentary. Lipitz, however, is set in her transition from Broadway to film, reading scripts, prepping a new doc and — now repped by WME’s Liesl Copland — readying herself for another busy year.
The Film: On paper, Patti Cake$ reads like the next indie crossover hit, with hints of 8 Mile and Little Miss Sunshine and made by the producers of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film chronicles an aspiring New Jersey rapper named Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, who with help from her best friend, a mysterious musician and her loving grandmother, sets out to pursue her musical dreams. After standing ovations at its Sundance premieres, Variety crowed that Patti “stands to become one of the year’s most endearing discoveries.”
Financing: The project, by music video director Geremy Jasper and Beasts producers Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey and Josh Penn, was invited to the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs, as well as Sundance’s Catalyst film financing forum. Through their presentation at Catalyst and prior relationships, they were able to put together a more than $1 million budget with Brazil’s RT Features and Hollywood veteran Chris Columbus.
Deals: Given Searchlight’s past track record with Beasts of the Southern Wild, the eventual deal seemed like a natural one: After a competitive bidding war, with reportedly aggressive offers from Amazon and Neon, Fox Searchlight acquired worldwide rights to the film for $9.5 million — the third biggest deal of the festival (after The Big Sick and Netflix’s Mudbound).
Distribution: Patti stumbled out of the starting gate on its August 18 opening weekend in 14 theaters with a per-theater average of just $4,829. A third weekend Labor Day expansion to 295 theaters fared no better, with an average of about $1,000 per-screen. But industry-wide, movie theaters are experiencing the pain, with movie admissions the worst in decades. The film’s R-rating may have hurt its reach to younger audiences while, conversely, the film’s earnest tone may have kept them away.
Grosses: The film ended up with a little over $800,000 in U.S. sales. Searchlight will have to bank on recouping some of its expenses on VOD and DVD later in the year.
Upshot: Whether Patti Cake$ suffered as a result of bad timing, excessive expectations and a disproportionate releasing strategy, or a storyline that fell between demographics, nobody really knows. But after a tough year, Searchlight may be forced to rethink its aggressive rollouts in the future. The filmmakers persevere: Jasper is developing a new film and the producers are in post on Reinaldo Green’s much-anticipated debut feature and Benh Zeitlin’s follow up to Beasts of the Southern Wild.