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2011 Sundance Film Fest Theatrical Acquisitions Underperform – Set Low Expectations for 2012

Festivals
by Tom Brueggemann
January 16, 2012 4:20 PM
7 Comments
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Paul Rudd in "Our Idiot Brother"

What does "Our Idiot Brother" have in common with "The Kids Are All Right," "Precious," "Sunshine Cleaning," "Once," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "March of the Penguins”? Like those other titles (distributed between 2005-2011), it was the highest-grossing film in theaters among those acquired at the Sundance Film Festival (SFF) the year it premiered.

Significantly however, last year's edition seemed to produce fewer than usual films reaching even a modest theatrical audience. Only four other acquisitions -- "Win Win," "Cedar Rapids," "The Guard" and "Margin Call” -- have grossed $5 million or more.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this year’s Sundance lineup has very few films with confirmed distribution deals in place ahead of this week’s fest opening.  This could be due to SFF programmers spotlighting fewer surefire hits, or indie companies backing away from financing production, or a combination of the two. As a result, Sundance 2012 could prove to be more of a buyer’s market after a year of relatively weak boxoffice performances.

Out of last year’s 117 Sundance films, 70 (60%) have already opened or will be released theatrically in the US -- a much higher percentage than those screened at Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin or other major festivals. A comparison of reported sales figures and revenues proves revealing.

Elizabeth Olsen in Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

Acquisitions figures can vary greatly and often can't be relied upon, since they’re frequently "leaked" in the interest of one party or another, irrespective of their accuracy. As always, revenue information comes from multiple sources, including boxoffice reports, foreign sales figures, DVD sales, cable deals and ancillary rights yet to be exploited further down the line. This analysis omits films either produced for, or acquired by, cable and broadcast networks without a theatrical release, such as “Reagan” and “Becoming Chaz.”

Here’s a rundown on how last year’s SFF films have performed theatrically (including pre-bought titles):

“Our Idiot Brother” (The Weinstein Company)

With a domestic gross just under $25 million, this Paul Rudd-starring comedy was by far the biggest hit from last year. Unlike most Sundance pickups, this was a wide release from the start (2,555 theaters), with all the marketing cost that accompanies that strategy. It was the highest-priced acquisition last year, reportedly over $6 million, with a $15 million P&A commitment. With The Weinstein Company retaining no more than half of the gross under typical deals with exhibitors, this was not the success the company was likely hoping for. (Presented in the Premieres section.)

“Win Win” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Searchlight went into the festival with Tom McCarthy’s high school wrestling comedy starring Paul Giamatti. It captured the second-highest theatrical gross. Although its budget isn’t known, the just-under $11 million take probably didn’t come close to covering the production and marketing costs in itself. (Premieres)

“Cedar Rapids” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Searchlight also launched this film right after its Sundance debut, using Sundance as a marketing platform. Debuting just after Sundance, Miguel Arteta’s small town fish-out-of-water comedy managed just under $7 million with a mid-level release (and attendant expenses) to get there. (Premieres)

“The Guard” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Acquired at the festival for a reported $1 million, the gross of $5.3 million, with a more narrowly focused, less expensive release, should lead the film into the black.  (It’s grossed more than double that in the rest of the world, not handled by SPC). (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

“Margin Call” (Roadside Attractions)

A co-venture with Lions Gate for around $2 million, the domestic gross of $5.3 million represents only part of the first wave of revenue. Perhaps the most interesting story out of last year’s deals, this was released with parallel video-on-demand (VOD) availability.

Because of the policies of many exhibitors to not play VOD films, Roadside Attractions was cut off from many potential dates. They were able to four-wall (rent) many screens for a set rate, then keep all of the ticket revenue for themselves, a risky move, but likely profitable for them.

The figures for VOD orders are not readily available, but with the distributor picking up a far greater share of this, "Margin Call" should end up as a profitable deal. It also likely stands as a model for more release patterns in the future. (Premiere)

“Buck” (IFC/Sundance Selects)

The success story behind this documentary about a real-life horse whisperer (on the Oscar doc shortlist) was described in an earlier Indiewire article. IFC went against form to hold back its normal day-and-date VOD release and was rewarded with a gross of over $4 million.  (US Documentary Competition)

“Like Crazy” (Paramount)

Perhaps the acquisition with the highest hopes for a breakout hit, the $3.7 domestic gross hasn’t even covered the reported $4 million cost to Paramount, even before additional marketing expenses, including of an awards campaign. Though the hope was to replicate the appeal of “(500) Days of Summer,” “Like Crazy” never caught on as hoped with critics or audiences when released in October and Sundance “It Girl” Felicity Jones has been largely passed over for awards following a Sundance Special Jury Prize. (US Dramatic Competition)

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Searchlight acquired worldwide rights for an unspecified price, but only realized a disappointing $2.9 million gross. Last year’s expectations that the film could propel star Elizabeth Olsen into a best-actress nomination are now at best a long-shot. The upside for the company is an already-signed first-look deal for future productions from BorderLine Films, “MMMM”’s production company, which includes director Sean Durkin and “Afterschool” filmmaker Antonio Campos. (US Dramatic Competition)

“Incendies” (Sony Pictures Classics) and “In a Better World” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Selected to screen at SFF after both showing at Toronto and with both receiving Oscar Best Foreign Language Film nominations during Sundance, neither did as well as hoped -- “Incendies” recorded about $2 million; “In a Better World” drew only $1 million. Both were relatively inexpensive acquisitions, with post-theatrical platforms that will defray their losses, if any. Both films opened after the Oscars, but this year SPC is getting some of its possible nominees out to the public earlier.  (Both presented in Spotlight.)

“Take Shelter” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Acquired for an unspecified price just before the festival with a $1.7 million gross so far, the film has been a disappointment. With one of the best Metacritic ratings of the year (85) and initial hopes (still alive) for a best-actor nomination for Michael Shannon, SPC also has the cushion of additional revenues from Latin America, Australia and New Zealand included in the deal. A Shannon nomination would inject some new life, including for the pending DVD release. (US Dramatic Competition)

“Senna” (Producers Distribution Agency)

A below-the-radar minor domestic success at $1.6 million (a small portion of its worldwide gross), this documentary found an audience among Formula 1 race fans, as much as standard specialized audiences. (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

Despite some weak theatrical performances, no film festival should be judged entirely by acquisitions activity or subsequent box office receipts. Last year’s Sundance slate included numerous acclaimed films, introduced a number of talented new filmmakers and elevated others whose work had previously been spotlighted. That track record remains intact.

But the mixed results, combined with the absence of a single breakout film --not the first time in Sundance history-- will surely be remembered by acquisitions executives negotiating for this year’s numerous new entries. Meantime, new distribution models -- including a mixture of theatrical playoff and VOD, as modeled by IFC, Magnolia and Roadside Attractions, among others -- will likely prove a worthwhile strategy for other companies.


More Boxoffice Statistics for 2011 Sundance Film Festival Titles

Films grossing $1-1.5 million:

“The Devil’s Double” (Anchor Bay Entertainment) (Premieres)
“The Art of Getting By” (Fox Searchlight Pictures) (US Dramatic Competition)
“Another Earth” (Fox Searchlight Pictures) (US Dramatic Competition)
“Beats, Rhymes and Life” (Sony Pictures Classics) (US Documentary Competition)
“Red State” (Smodcast, simultaneous on VOD) (Premieres)
“Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times” (Magnolia) (US Documentary Competition)

Tyler Dawson and Evan Glodell in "Bellflower"

Films grossing between $500,000 - $1 million:

“Higher Ground” (Sony Pictures Classics) (US Dramatic Competition)
“The Future” (Roadside Attractions) (US Dramatic Competition)
“POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” (Sony Pictures Classics) (Documentary Premieres)
“Hobo With a Shotgun” (Magnolia Pictures) (Park City at Midnight)

Films grossing under $500,000:

“Circumstance” (Roadside Attractions) (US Dramatic Competition)
“Life in a Day” (National Geographic) (Premieres)
“The Interrupters” (Cinema Guild) (Documentary Premieres)
“Submarine” (The Weinstein Company) (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
“Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” (Submarine Deluxe) (US Documentary Competition)
“Project Nim” (Roadside Attractions) (US Documentary Competition)
“Troll Hunter” (Magnolia Pictures) (Park City at Midnight)
“Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place” (Magnolia Pictures) (Documentary Premieres)
“Bellflower” (Oscilloscope Pictures) (Park City at Midnight)
“Flypaper” (IFC) (Premieres)
“I Melt With You” (Magnolia Pictures) (Premieres)
“Mad Bastards” (IFC) (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
“The Music Never Stopped” (IFC) (Premieres)
“Salvation Boulevard” (IFC) (Premieres)
“The Son of No One” (Anchor Bay Entertainment) (Premieres)
“Granito” (International Film Circuit) (Documentary Premieres)
“Elite Squad 2” (Variance) (Spotlight)
“Knuckle” (Arc Entertainment) (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
“Gun Hill Road” (Motion Picture Group) (US Dramatic Competition)
“Rebirth” (Oscilloscope Pictures) (Premieres)
“Another Happy Day” (P4) (US Dramatic Competition)
“Terri” (ATO) (US Dramatic Competition)
“The Ledge” (IFC) (US Dramatic Competition)
“The Mill and the Cross” (Kino) (New Frontiers)
“I Saw the Devil” (Magnolia Pictures)  (Spotlight)
“Kaboom” (IFC)  (Spotlight)
“Letters from the Big Man” (MGB)  (Spotlight)
“Connected:  An Autobiography of Love, Death and Technology” (Paladin) (US Documentary Competition)
“Crime After Crime” (Life Sentence) (US Documentary Competition)
“These Amazing Shadows” (IFC) (Documentary Premieres)
“Happy, Happy” (Magnolia Pictures) (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” (Oscilloscope Pictures) (US Documentary)
“Position Among the Stars” (Scarabee) (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
“Septien” (IFC)  (Park City at Midnight)
“Shut Up Little Man” (Tribeca) (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel” (Anchor Bay Entertainment) (Park City at Midnight)
“The Last Mountain” (Dada) (US Documentary Competition)
“Uncle Kent” (IFC) (Spotlight)
“Troubadours” (Concord) (US Documentary Competition)
“Tyrannosaur” (Strand) (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
“We Were Here” (Red Flag) (US Documentary Competition)
“Women Art Revolution” (Zeitgeist) (New Frontier)

Recently opened:

“Pariah” (Focus Features)  (US Narrative Competition)
“Sing Your Song” (SB2N) (US Documentary Competition)

Still to open:

“Attenberg” (Strand) (World Cinema Narrative Competition)
“The Details” (The Weinstein Company) (Premieres)
“Perfect Sense” (IFC)  (Premieres)
“Silent House” (Open Road) (Park City at Midnight)

IFC Films Eva Green and Ewan McGregor in "Perfect Sense"

7 Comments

  • jk | January 17, 2012 5:51 PMReply

    why are you judging these films as financial failures or successes based only on the domestic theatrical box office? what about dvd vod streaming etc?

  • Dana Harris | January 17, 2012 8:38 PM

    Most of these deals were made for North America. And because accurate VOD numbers are all but impossible to obtain, it's all but impossible to analyze their bottom-line impact. (Annoys the hell out of us, too.)

  • Anne Thompson | January 17, 2012 4:08 PMReply

    Yes, both films went into the fest with Searchlight. I made that point clearer.

  • Alonso Duralde | January 17, 2012 2:39 PMReply

    Do WIN WIN and CEDAR RAPIDS count as acquisitions? Those went into Sundance already on the Fox Searchlight slate.

  • Peter Guzzardo | January 17, 2012 8:21 AMReply

    I've dipped my foot in and out of the entertainment industry for 25 years. In that time, with the help of countless dedicated and talented professionals, I've lead the release of twelve feature films, produced two, directed one, discovered one successful band, two major movie stars, and still receive royalty checks from MGM every year.

    Goal is to make pictures which entertain, excite, inspire and move people in the direction of their dreams and the box office. "Aye, there's the rub!", for what risks does blind pursuit of the box office reap? I propose a mathematical constant, Let's call it the "ego coefficient" in the equation when calculating the, best case/worst case, analysis which all distribs do before bidding on or distributing a movie. The "EC" would immediately deduct 35% from both the best case and worst case analysis. Let's face it. All of us in THE business are passionate about our projects wether we are the filmmakers or marketers. We love them, and like proud parents, we are all sure our "children" are the elite, gifted one's entitled to special attention and the success which comes with it. In reality, in most cases, we are wrong. Most cases is equal to around 70% of the time. If we cut that number in half (which is how I came up with the 35% above) it still leaves us with enough optimism and confidence to support our spend budgets with gusto and leave us not too far in the red column when we fail; and fail we must. In one out of ten failures, we just may discover a great success. Trick is to stick around long enough to make it to ten. Maybe the "EC" can help do just that. See ya on the red carpet.

  • bryan | January 16, 2012 5:08 PMReply

    your list is not current
    The Convinver (now called "Thin Ice") is set to be released this year

  • Tom Brueggemann | January 17, 2012 12:22 AM

    Thanks for catching that, Bryan. I missed the title change.

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