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Sundance 2012 Revisited: Top Ten Winners, Theatrical Numbers Down, VOD Profits Up (Charts)

by Tom Brueggemann
January 17, 2013 6:00 AM
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Benh Zeitlin at Sundance
Benh Zeitlin at Sundance

As the buying frenzy for Sundance 2013 begins -- bolstered by the unexpected Oscar nominations for last year's grand jury prize-winner "Beasts of the Southern Wild" -- let's look at what happened to the rest of the 2012 acquisitions. Last year, the prices for top films fell a bit below 2011, after several high-profile acquisitions underperformed. For the 2012 slate, that caution seems to have paid off, with fewer clear losses even though break-out hits were few. (See our Sundance 2012 section by section release charts below.)

About 100 of last year's 114 films will eventually have had some sort of theatrical, video on demand, cable, PBS and/or DVD release (in a handful of cases self-distributed). The theatrical component of these films fell from around $90 million for the 2011 slate to around $75 million for last year's (a handful of films still await their theatrical debuts). Most of that gap comes from no film having grossed over $12 million. Last year, Weinstein's acquisition "Our Idiot Brother" went wide and grossed almost $25 million.

This year, only two films reached $11 million: CBS' badly reviewed "The Words" (which took 2,800 theaters on the basis of Bradley Cooper's perceived marquee value) and "Beasts," which Fox Searchlight successfully nurtured on a much smaller scale with considerably less advertising to almost as big a gross.

Overall, business was spread around more films - 13 grossed over $1.5 million, which is the low end for a specialized film, compared to 11 from the 2011 line-up. But 2012 marked a huge delivery seachange that will yield more the profits for the Sundance slate.

Video on Demand, already a key factor among 2011 releases; Lionsgate/Roadside Attraction's "Margin Call" was the biggest success after its Sundance premiere, but Magnolia's "Melancholia" also did well among non-Sundance films.  Cose to a quarter of the 2012 films in release were made available on various Video on Demand outlets - cable, Itunes, Hulu, even filmmakers' own web sites -  concurrent with or before their theatrical openings. Eight of the 16 films in the Premiere section have gone the VOD route (leading among all Sundance sections), because they tend to have better-known stars and are aimed at a broader audience, while not necessarily justifying wide theatrical play.

Although VOD revenues are not released to the public as readily as theatrical grosses, some success stories have been touted. Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions reteamed for "Arbitrage," from the 2012 Premiere section, which grossed nearly $8 million theatrically despite being unwelcome at most theaters because of its VOD play. But "Arbitrage" brought in around $11 million in the latter formats. For a film whose acquisition cost was reported at around $2 million, and for which much less advertising was required (as well as lesser print and other distribution expenses), this is a major haul.

The Weinsteins launched their Radius VOD division in earnest with acquisitions from the festival and elsewhere last year, launching with their $2 million Sundance Premiere section acqusition, "Bachelorette." More commercial than critics' oriented, it had a minimal, inexpensive theatrical launch (mainly to build to awareness) which grossed under $500,000. But the VOD take was $5.5 million, meaning the film likely (with revenues split with cable and other companies) made its money back from that alone.

Together VOD pioneers IFC and Magnolia account for about a dozen Sundance 2012 films released on VOD, often weeks before (usually limited) theatrical release. None of these grossed more than a million, but being able to get theaters and reviews in New York and Los Angeles (at a minimum) remains a critical element in marketing for both those companies.


  • ALI-ANS PRODUCTIONS | January 19, 2013 4:11 AMReply

    Thank you Tom for a thoroughly insightful and informative article. I have been trying to find this set of data all over the web for weeks, and just happened to stumble across your article this morning as i drank my morning tea... so cheers!
    Do you know of any public databases/sites that contain up to date listings of purchases at all major festivals?

  • Mike D. | January 18, 2013 9:28 PMReply

    Great article. Am I blind or is the US Directing winner MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (AFFRM/Participant) missing from the list? I was released theatrically in October and grossed over $200,000 on a reported budget of $200,000.

  • Tom Brueggemann | January 19, 2013 12:12 AM

    Thanks Mike D. and the others for your kind comments.
    And thanks for catching a much bigger temporary problem. The original set of charts, which included the rest of Premieres, Documentary Premieres and U.S. Narrative competition, was reset for production reasons, and in the process a number of titles were erased. It is being corrected and the full chart should be back up shortly.

  • seth willenson | January 18, 2013 12:26 AMReply

    This was a great job of reporting which the other blogs sorely lack

    you need to look at the diminishinng value of ancillaries in general because of the overwhelming choice available

    dont forget the cost of the "vod" successes in marketing

    also not hard to open and get reviewed in NY and Los Angeles. Virtually impossible to make
    money for a small picture

    goal posts have been moved back- appopriate for football weekend

    thanks to the reporter and the editor

  • rgm | January 17, 2013 12:09 PMReply

    Extraordinarily informative and complete. Thank you

  • Jasper | January 17, 2013 9:33 AMReply

    This is a great write-up. Thank you for putting it together.

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