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Industry Beat

by Anthony Kaufman

Hits & Misses: How Six Sundance 2023 Titles Performed in Distribution

A black teenage boy hunches over a scooter on a street.Josiah Cross in A Thousand and One (courtesy of Aaron Ricketts/Focus Features)

After nearly flatlining during the pandemic years, American independent film saw some signs of life in 2023. While optimists might call it a year of transition as the industry looks for new audiences and a new equilibrium, cynics see an unsustainable and contracting arthouse marketplace, with most producers and distributors increasingly unable to recoup. But, if you look at the fates of last year’s Sundance titles, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. 

For all the doom and gloom about the acquisitions market (“No one is buying films!”), 10 out of 12 films in this year’s Dramatic Competition eventually found U.S. distribution. (Two already had distributors, but it’s still as good a record as any over the past decade.) However, apart from Netflix’s exorbitant $20 million payout for Fair Play and Searchlight’s seven-figure deal for Theater Camp (more below), sale prices were, in many cases, minimal, and box-office breakouts were rare. While some industry insiders blame the pandemic for irrevocably changing moviegoing habits, midsummer 2023 also brought a couple of other unforeseen obstacles for indies: the “Barbenheimer” effect, which sucked up all the press and screens, and the SAG-AFTRA strike, which prevented actors from promoting their cinematic labors-of-love.

In terms of good news, Sundance provided a launchpad for two of this year’s undisputed indie champions. With no stars and a first-time director, at press time Celine Song’s Past Lives had earned $10.9 million at the U.S. box office, another $9.4 million internationally, and is in line for major Academy Award recognition and a long tail on digital platforms. A24 distributed the film the old-fashioned way—a word-of-mouth-style rollout over 16-plus weeks, slowly expanding from four to 906 theaters. A lot of companies have abandoned that approach altogether, betting on multi-hundred-screen launches. Particularly in the absence of virtual print fees, such wide releases are no longer cost prohibitive. It’s easier, distributors say, to release films on a wider scale and maximize marketing and attention before more lucrative digital releases.

A24 also had a very different kind of hit. Acquiring the Australian horror flick Talk to Me (its directors’ YouTube channel “RackaRacka” has nearly 7 million subscribers) out of Sundance’s Midnight section, it released the film across a broad 2,340 theaters in late July. After nearly three months in theatrical release, the movie eventually grossed more than $48 million in the United States, ranking among the top-grossing 50 titles of 2023 and staying in the “Top Ten” TVOD charts for weeks. A couple of Sundance success stories might not seem cause for celebration, but they are enough to keep hope alive.

Most other filmmakers, however, faced an uncertain market. Benjamin Odell, producer of Christopher Zalla’s Radical, was delighted by the enthusiastic response to their film in Park City (where it won the Festival Favorite Award) but not by the deals they received from distributors. “The offers weren’t really making business sense,” he says. So, together with Pantelion Films, a division of TelevisaUnivision and Lionsgate, “we decided to take it out ourselves.” The producers partnered with new marketing concern PaperAirplane (whose former Lionsgate executives had worked on Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez’s previous films) to tap into the Spanish-language demographic, and Participant to reach the arthouse market. “It truly ended up being the best way to reach the different audiences that we believe this movie appeals to,” says Odell. Results were solid, with an opening per-screen-average of around $6,000 on just over 420 theaters, and total box office set to exceed $8 million.

Documentaries, however, have not seen any semblance of a rebound. It took months for acquisitions to trickle in, and the rare couple that were purchased and released—Magnolia’s CNN pick-up Little Richard: I Am Everything (more below) and its NEXT section buy Kokomo City—both stalled with paltry theatrical sales of $131,490 and $77,278, respectively. Sundance’s other big docs, such as The Deepest Breath (Netflix), Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (Apple) and Judy Blume Forever (Amazon) all went largely to their buyers’ platforms, because, alas, that’s where the industry believes they belong.

Oscar-winning doc producer Diane Becker (Navalny), who worked on Sundance documentary King Coal (more below), believes that filmmakers need to “reset and redirect their expectations” and raise funds for distribution early in their financing plans. “We all need to start thinking more outside the box and understand who our primary audience is and figure out meaningful and new ways to engage with them,” she says.

Fiction producer David Grove Churchill Viste (Birth/Rebirth) agrees. “More and more, it’s getting harder to make a compelling argument to an investor to put money down when there are no buyers,” he says. “I think we’re seeing a shift where there needs to be a distribution plan in place.”

Distributors also see a time to recalibrate. Roadside Attractions co-president Eric d’Arbeloff believes the industry is never going back to the way it was. “Because the traditional older audience has been slow to come back” and “the bread-and-butter movies for the arthouse aren’t as steady,” he says, producers and directors need to “shift their mindset” to cater to “new audiences” primed for films that are “more commercial” and “genre oriented.”

“We view ‘specialty’ film as evolving, and we think it’s getting younger and more genre friendly,” echoes Scott Shooman, head of AMC Networks Film Group, which oversees film companies IFC Films, Shudder and RLJE, as well as New York’s IFC Center. “If you do the same thing you did five years ago, you’re going to get schooled right now.”

How will these shifts impact another year of independent film? It’s always difficult to say. Here are six case studies from this past year’s Sundance (in order of release date) that indicate the current state, and potential future, of the marketplace.

A Thousand and One 

Release dates: March 31 (theaters), April 18 (TVOD), May 19 (SVOD, Peacock)

Budget: Mid seven figures

Domestic box office total: $3,400,020

Widest release: 926 theaters

Origins: Off the acclaim of her short film Feathers, writer-director A.V. Rockwell begins taking meetings in 2018 with several production companies, including Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad, Sight Unseen and Brad Weston’s Makeready, all of whom join forces to develop A Thousand and One. Rockwell works on the project further while at the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs in 2019 and continues to refine the project into the pandemic. “She was very meticulous with the script,” says Sight Unseen’s Julia Lebedev. The producers then bring the script to Focus Features. During COVID quarantine, Focus agrees to acquire the film as a negative pick-up. “We thought it was a thrilling piece of writing,” says Kiska Higgs, Focus Features’ president of production and acquisitions, acknowledging the project also fit into its annual slate of roughly five smaller budgeted films (in the range of mid-seven-figures). 

Early on, the studio discusses casting someone “well-known” in the title role, admits Higgs, “but A.V. was like, ‘No, it has to be authentic.’ And we were like, ‘OK’; she was right.” In summer 2021, production wraps, but post takes longer than expected, as a new editor is brought in and Focus puts in more funds for music and grading “to finish it at the level that we thought it deserved,” says Higgs.

Sales & Distribution: After A Thousand and One wins the Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize (“It’s a great way to begin a campaign,” says producer Eddie Vaisman), Focus releases the film aggressively on 926 screens on March 31 and earns a decent opening per-screen-average of $1,939 and total weekend grosses of about $1.8 million (boosted especially by New York City turnout). While reviews are fantastic—scoring an 81 on Metacritic, with raves from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post (“A Thousand and One isn’t just worth seeing—it’s worth celebrating”), the release isn’t exactly orchestrated for theatrical longevity. Less than three weeks later, the film hits TVOD platforms on April 18 and then SVOD on May 19 on Peacock (owned by Focus parent company NBCUniversal.) Total box office reaches $3.4 million. 

Recoupment: According to Higgs, Focus is “very pleased with the performance” and the theatrical release did what it needed to do: “It overperformed significantly in subsequent windows.” Even months after the initial release, producer Lebedev says they’re still getting emails from people affected by the movie. “It’s obviously a challenging time to release dramas,” she admits, “but the response has been tremendous.” The film remains atop critic aggregation websites and is a frontrunner for indie-minded year-end accolades. “We look at it as a success,” says Vaisman. “Not every movie is a financial windfall, but for us, the real win is the reception of the movie, and we got to make the movie we wanted to make.” Meanwhile, Rockwell’s career continues to rise: She signs with commercial company Prettybird (which reps Daniels, among others) and directs a major spot for Visa and the National Football League while planning her next feature. 

Little Richard: I Am Everything

Release dates: April 11 (one-night theatrical event), theatrical and TVOD (April 21), cable television (September 4), November 23 (SVOD, Max)

Budget: Low seven figures

Domestic box office total: $131,940

Widest release: 560 theaters

Origins: After music icon Little Richard dies in spring 2020, producer-director Lisa Cortés (All In: The Fight for Democracy) learns that Bungalow Media + Entertainment has been developing a project about the musician. Cortés joins forces with Bungalow and develops a pitch. “I really wanted to establish the interiority of this person, and that he was an instigator for change at certain points in American and queer history,” says Cortés. In spring 2021, CNN Films comes onboard to fully finance a low-seven-figures budget. “Music documentaries have always been a sweet spot for us,” says CNN Worldwide EVP Amy Entelis.

The team brings on additional producers, including Caryn Capotosto (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) and archive producers Gideon Kennedy and Richard Remsberg to gather material and mobilize the project. For Cortés, the film’s glittering “dreamscapes,” enabled by visual effects supervisor Fons Schiedon, were particularly key—“and we stayed on budget,” she adds. With the help of Jake Hostetter, editor Nyneve Laura Minnear finishes post on the film in 2022.

Sales & Distribution: Following its Sundance world premiere, Magnolia Pictures acquires global rights from CNN with a planned April theatrical launch date. On April 11, Magnolia kicks off the release with a special one-night-only event across more than 500 theaters before a day-and-date TVOD and theatrical release on April 21. “We’ve found that an eventized launch is usually a good strategy for music docs,” says Neal Block, Magnolia Pictures head of distribution and marketing. “When you have a known quantity like Little Richard—a star, a legend—we don’t need to educate the general public about him. We can put the film in a lot of theaters, make audiences aware of it, then quickly move to VOD, drafting off the same advertising and messaging to get the at-home audience to transact.” But theatrical ticket sales never catch fire alongside the VOD launch: Per-screen-averages barely exceed a few hundred dollars and piddle out to slightly less than $100 in the release’s final few weeks. Block maintains that VOD sales have done “very well for us.”

Meanwhile, CNN’s early September broadcast of the film ranks in the top five cable shows in its timeslot, according to CNN, while Magnolia sells the film to more than 20 territories internationally. On November 23, the film launches on CNN parent company Warner Bros. Discovery’s SVOD platform Max.

Recoupment: Cortés points to the range of releases and continued interest in the film (they’re getting invites from international festivals into the winter) as evidence of the film’s “robust and expansive” reach. “I think people are looking for a continuum in the work that I do and the communities I’m interested in shedding a light on,” she continues. “During a time when there are visible ways that the country wants to negate Black history, there is an urgency to the telling of these stories.” 

Cortés plans to announce her next project soon. It won’t be with CNN Films—which no longer commissions documentaries—but she says the company continues to champion the film and support its awards ambitions.

Block says observers shouldn’t take away too much from the weak theatrical box office. “The whole ecosystem of the film—from event cinema screenings to additional theatrical to VOD to CNN to Max—is taken into consideration when we think about the success of the film,” he says. “This one will also have a long tail. It’ll be a cornerstone of our library for many years.”

Theater Camp

Release dates: July 14 (theatrical), September 14 (TVOD and SVOD, Hulu)

Budget: Mid seven figures

Domestic box office total: $4,009,945

Widest release: 555 theaters

Origins: In 2020, then-rising actors and longtime friends Ben Platt (who broke out in the stage production of Dear Evan Hansen), Molly Gordon (Booksmart), Noah Gavin and writer-director Nick Lieberman release a comedy short on YouTube called Theater Camp, which serves as proof of concept for their debut feature. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gloria Sanchez Productions sign on to produce alongside Picturestart’s Erik Feig (Cha Cha Real Smooth); they had all worked together on Am I OK?, which co-starred Gordon. During the COVID summer of 2020, they commission a loose “script-ment” for the semi-improvised feature and begin pitching it to other financiers as a comedy in the vein of Christopher Guest meets Wet Hot American Summer meets School of Rock. 

After one financier pulls out of the project as a result of a casting change, the producers turn to Topic Studios, which completes financing for the mid-seven-figures budget. Shooting over just 19 days in the Catskills in summer 2022, says Feig, “was an ambitious schedule, with multiple performances, kids and improvisations. Although the above-the-line costs were relatively modest, we were as efficient as possible.”

Sales & Distribution: On the first Saturday of Sundance, Theater Camp premieres with much fanfare, complete with a live performance from the kids in the film. (“It was overwhelming,” says Gloria Sanchez producer Jessica Elbaum). Says Feig, “If you asked us before Sundance what would happen with a feel-good movie that plays across audiences, we thought the streamers would eat it up.” 

But after the premiere, they wait. “I think buyers were still looking to see what was out there and not wanting to get caught up in a bidding war,” says Feig. The next day, according to the team, Searchlight’s top executives stream the film on Sundance’s digital viewing platform, meet in their condo and stay up into the wee hours of the morning to finalize a worldwide rights deal for a reported $8 million.

On July 14, fittingly in midsummer, Searchlight opens the film across six theaters in New York and Los Angeles, with a stellar per-screen average of $50,203 (the company’s biggest per-screen average since Jojo Rabbit in 2019). With an “A” CinemaScore and “excellent” exit polls in major cities, according to Searchlight, the film expands in subsequent weeks across hundreds of screens. To promote the film, Searchlight partners with a wide mix of youth camps, college theater groups,
improv groups and public theater groups to promote and sell tickets. 

But there were a couple problems along the way. “I don’t think anyone realized how huge ‘Barbenheimer’ was going to be,” says Feig, who blames the two films, in part, for hurting Theater Camp’s expansion, just eight days after Barbie and Oppenheimer opened. On top of the “Barbenheimer” squeeze, there was the SAG-AFTRA strike, which began right as it opened. “We had been booked on Good Morning America with the four creatives and the kids, and suddenly, the cast all had to go dark,’ says Feig. “It was exceptionally unlucky,” adds Elbaum.

On September 14, the film goes out simultaneously on TVOD and SVOD (via Searchlight parent company Walt Disney’s platform Hulu).

Recoupment: While theatrical ticket sales ultimately underperform, the producers consider their project a success. “As financiers, we made our money back, and that’s a victory,” says Feig. “But it would have been a sweeter victory if the theatrical release was successful.” While Searchlight might take some time to recoup its $8 million deal, the film performed strongly on Hulu, according to Feig, and its original soundtrack also sold better than expected.

“I think people are watching it and discovering it, and it’s going to have a cult following and a long life,” says Elbaum. “And I think it’s done a lot for Molly and Nick as filmmakers.” The producers also reserved live stage rights. Though nothing is set yet, says Feig, “It’s a great idea for a touring show!”


Release dates: August 4 (theatrical), September 12 (TVOD), TBD (SVOD, Netflix)

Budget: Low seven figures

Domestic box office total: $675,257

Widest release: 404 theaters

Origins: In 2019, Fresh Off the Boat star Randall Park and his producing partner Hieu Ho start production company Imminent Collision and begin actively looking for a feature project to jumpstart the company. When they learn Roadside Attractions is developing a project with Adrian Tomine, author of the graphic novel Shortcomings, Park pitches them on a feature. “Randall was the perfect director to elevate the material,” says Roadside’s Eric d’Arbeloff, who, together with Imminent Collision, develop the project and decide to seek outside financing. “But it was incredibly challenging, what we were trying to do,” says Ho, “telling a story about multidimensional Asian characters. Financiers were not jumping up and down.” Before funding is fully committed, the team secures rising star Justin Min (The Umbrella Academy) in order to prove “this was real, and the train was leaving the station,” says Ho. By fall 2021, Topic Studios comes on board, followed by Tango Entertainment, which agrees to co-finance the 24-day shoot on a low-seven-figures budget in summer 2022. “The goal was to take this to Sundance, and to see what happens with it,” says d’Arbeloff.

Sales & Distribution: After the Sundance premiere, reviews are mostly solid, with many calling the film funny and insightful, if a bit formulaic. (Ho disputes the idea that audiences have seen this before. “When was the last time people saw this kind of portrait of Asians?” he says. “Better Luck Tomorrow [from 2002] is one of the only examples.”) In early March, Sony Pictures Classics announces the acquisition of worldwide rights; the producers are excited to work with a legacy company with a theatrical commitment. The film opens aggressively across 404 screens on August 4, earning $300,949 (and a mediocre per-theater average of $745). In subsequent weeks, theater counts and ticket sales continue to tumble. Even so, Ho says, “To have your film play in theaters across the country is an incredible honor, and we can’t take that for granted.” Ho also blames “Barbenheimer,” in part, for the film failing to gain momentum. “And when you have a small film that was not being platformed, it becomes more difficult to sustain a shot.”

The film drops on TVOD platforms in mid-September and will eventually appear on Netflix via a Sony output deal with the streamer, reaching an even wider audience.

Recoupment: The producers are optimistic that the film will eventually be profitable after all revenue streams are considered, but Ho ultimately feels a “sense of pride” that the film was simply made and released at all. “It was meant to contribute to the spectrum of our humanity,” he says. “There’s an incredible amount of Asian talent out there, and there just needs to be more opportunities out there for it.”

King Coal

Release dates: August 11 (theatrical), 2024 (broadcast, POV)

Budget: High six figures to low seven figures

Domestic box office total: around $50,000

Widest release: 50+ theaters

Origins: Nearly four years in the making, Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s poetic Appalachian elegy about the coal industry’s grip on the region gets its first big supporter with Oscar-winning producer Shane Boris (Navalny, Fire of Love). Soon after, fellow Navalny producer Diane Becker joins the team followed by author and producer Peggy Drexler. Through a wide range of grants (West Virginia Humanities Council, Tribeca Film Institute Gucci Fund, Sundance Institute Development Fund, Catapult Film Fund, Field of Vision, Creative Capital and the Guggenheim Foundation), the filmmakers raise $265,000, around 20% of the film’s overall budget. The remaining budget is funded through equity, 90% of which comes from Drexler’s Drexler Films (My Name is Pauli Murray) and the remaining amount from new funder Heather Baldry at Narrow Vision Endeavours.

Sales & Distribution: At Sundance, King Coal is relegated, for better or worse, to the festival’s more innovative NEXT section. Cinetic Media represents U.S. sales. Responses to the in-person screenings are strong, but somewhat muted outside the theater; none of the trades even review the film, apart from IndieWire, which offers a moderately positive evaluation. With few theatrical opportunities out of Sundance for most films, the filmmakers decide to mount a self-distribution campaign. 

Working with Mia Bruno’s Fourth Act Film, they originally plan out a release in 10 to 15 markets, kicking off with one-week “eventized” showings at New York’s DCTV Firehouse Theater on August 11 (with live folk music) and Los Angeles’s Laemmle on August 25. Much to their pleasant surprise, the film is held over in both venues and begins booking across the country, both in big cities and regional areas, scheduled all the way through spring 2024. 

MPRM publicist Sylvia Desrochers credits positive reviews in the New York Times (“a cumulative eulogy for a way of life”), the Wall Street Journal (“a reverie for a time that is quickly passing”) and a mention in Esquire’s “Best Documentaries of 2023 (So Far)” list, posted in September, in helping reach a wider audience. At The Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Penn., the film plays side by side with, and trailers run before, Killers of the Flower Moon. Other notable sold-out screenings take place at The Granada Theater in Bluefield, W.Va, the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tenn. and The Neon theater in Dayton, Ohio, with support from Dayton resident and American Factory filmmaker Steve Bognar.

“One of the factors is having filmmakers who are engaged and doing the work and excited about talking to people,” says Bruno, adding that guests from the film were present for about half of the film’s more than 80 screenings. (Sheldon was pregnant through much of the release and had to stop touring in mid-September.) “It has made real money. We are on track to make $50,000 gross revenue,” Bruno notes, claiming they earned back their marketing budget and travel expenses.

According to producer Shane Boris, the run generated more revenue directly for the producers than “any other theatrical release I’ve done.”

Recoupment: While Boris admits the project is not profitable yet, the film closes a deal for PBS’s POV 2024 slate. “We had other interest, but POV was our best opportunity,” he says. The producers continue to retain educational and foreign rights. 

Regarding the film’s independent release, Sheldon, whose previous documentaries Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys were Netflix Originals, adds, “I have to say, there is extraordinary power in connecting with audiences one-on-one. We often evaluate a film’s success on money made and quantity of eyeballs reached, but this release has had a very valuable ‘quality’ of reach,” she explains. “We feel a great sense of satisfaction knowing that groups of people have gathered to watch and discuss this film together while at the same time supporting the work of many independent cinemas.”


Release dates: August 18 (theatrical), September 5 (TVOD), November 10 (SVOD, Shudder) 

Budget: Low seven figures

Domestic box office total: $138,617

Widest release: 137 theaters

Origins: Seven years ago, actor David Dastmalchian introduces producer Mali Elfman to writer-director Laura Moss. Sharing an interest in female-driven horror films, they hit it off. They try to get a more ambitious project off the ground but are unable to raise financing, so they pivot to their Frankenstein-inspired maternal horror flick. After originally setting it up in 2018 under the name After Birth, Elfman eventually decides to part ways with with Fangoria, the magazine-turned-production company, over conflicting views on the budget. She maintains the need for a union crew, for example. “It’s really hard to say ‘no,’” she says, “but I thought, ‘We’re not going to be able to make the film that we want to make.’” 

In 2020, Moss participates in the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs and begins to field further interest. “We were excited about their creative vision,” says Shudder executive Samuel Zimmerman, who, along with Emily Gotto, Shudder’s VP of acquisitions, gets behind the project, but COVID stops the momentum. Then, in early 2022, they restart plans to shoot the film on a budget of low seven figures with Shudder, while Elfman brings on David Grove Churchill Viste (How to Blow Up a Pipeline) as a producing partner. That summer, armed with years of preparation (“We had millions of conversations about it over the pandemic, and Laura knew what they wanted,” says Elfman), they move lightning fast, shooting the film from August to September and submitting a cut to Sundance just three weeks later. “I think that compressed deadline made for a better film,” adds Viste. “We had to go so quickly and kill our darlings so soon.”

Sales & Distribution: Birth/Rebirth premieres in Sundance’s Midnights section (even before color correction is finished), and trade reviews are mostly positive (Variety calls it “superbly performed, enjoyably queasy”). Shudder’s sister company IFC Films commits to a theatrical release, while Focus Features acquires international rights. The film opens on more than 130 screens in August, earning a weak $333 per-theater average. According to Viste, the theatrical release was “not as wonderful as I would have hoped,” with bookings in suburban areas that didn’t connect with the film. But, he says, drive-ins and second-run theaters “really drove our numbers up in an appreciable way.”

For Elfman, the SAG-AFTRA strike hurt the most. “Because we are an independent film without a P&A budget, we really rely on the talent.” she says. “Without them, it’s much harder to reach a broader audience.” Total box office after five weeks hits just under $140,000. But Scott Shooman, head of AMC Networks Film Group, is satisfied with the results. “We were really happy with the reception of the film and what [the release] did to introduce it in a scalable way and set it up for Shudder’s dedicated fanbase,” he says. 

Recoupment: With a Rotten Tomatoes score in the high 90s, Birth/Rebirth ends up being the best reviewed American genre film of the year. “On a purely creative level, the investment has already been an outstanding success,” says Shudder’s Zimmerman. Financially, the producers are also pleased. “We made the project we set out to make in the way we wanted and showed that you can stick to your guns and say yes to the right money, even if you have to wait,” says Elfman. “I think we have precedent for what we want to do next.” Now, Elfman and team are back to shopping around the project they set out to make together years ago, a more ambitious horror-comedy called Gordon. And Shudder appears to be interested. “We look forward to continuing to do business with them,” says Shooman.

This piece was edited after publication to correct the quoted box-office amount for King Coal and to clarify the film’s producing credits and equity financing splits. — Editor

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