Will It Blend?: the Morning After Sundance

by mattdentler
January 30, 2011 7:47 AM
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It was an historic year for acquisitions at the Sundance Film Festival. This graph from The Wrap isn't even accurate anymore, as more deals have been added since its creation. Oddly enough, the busy activity did not come from start-up distributors such as FilmDistrict or Relativity, but rather from seasoned veterans such as Fox Searchlight and IFC Films. While the flurry of activity for sales at Sundance this year has many producers and sales agents claiming victory and a bright future ahead, the true test will be conducted when these dozens of films enter the marketplace. It's one thing to buy a bunch of movies, but it's quite another to have them work for audiences. If the plethora of films acquired during Sundance can work upon their release, then we can breathe a sigh of relief that perhaps the traditional indie distribution business is back on healthy footing. Several times during this year's festival, I was reminded of the year before the bubble burst. It was Sundance 2007, the year when the acquisitions-to-distribution ratio began to hit the skids. The 2007 Sundance Film Festival was a busy time for big-dollar deals, but all these films suffered once they were released. As a result, distributors contracted in a way that hadn't reversed until last week in Park City. The math of 10 big deals at Sundance 2007:


Son of Rambow
Acquired by Paramount Vantage for $7 million; U.S. box office gross: $1,785,505

The Ten
Acquired by THINKFilm for $4.5 million; U.S. box office gross: $769,726

Clubland (released as Introducing the Dwights)
Acquired by Warner Independent Pictures for $4 million; U.S. box office gross: $379,408

Grace Is Gone
Acquired by The Weinstein Company for $4 million; U.S. box office gross: $50,899

Dedication
Acquired by The Weinstein Company and First Look Studios for $4 million; U.S. box office gross: $92,853

Joshua
Acquired by Fox Searchlight for $3.7 million; U.S. box office gross: $482,355

King of California
Acquired by First Look Studios for $3 million; U.S. box office gross: $268,461

Teeth
Acquired by Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company for $2.5 million; U.S. box office gross: $347,578

The Signal
Acquired by Magnolia Pictures for $2 million; U.S. box office gross: $251,150

My Kid Could Paint That
Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for $1 million; U.S. box office gross: $231,574


These weren't bad films (a few of them are great); they just didn't click with audiences in the way their minimum guarantees would have suggested. Lessons were learned from a buying spree like this, and that's why Sundance 2011 had more deals close in the six-figure range. Keeping the upfront spending low is smarter, because the aforementioned distributors are now either out of business, or much wiser about what makes for practical business. There were a few hits that came out of that Sundance 2007 class - Once, No End In Sight, Waitress, etc. - but it was a year that began with massive promise and ended with big disappointment. Let's do what we can to not let history repeat itself.

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