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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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Richard Gere and Brit Marling in "Arbitrage"

Among the films that grossed over $2 million, success depends in large part on the investment. The three standouts in profit were two documentaries as well as a comedy that came from the usually unheralded Next section. Sony Pictures Classics acquired "Searching for Sugar Man" (out of the World Doc section) which could win the Oscar for Feature Documentary, in no small part aided by its $3 million gross which came after a steady run clearly sustained by strong word of mouth (it actually opened to modest grosses).

Magnolia's "Queen of Versailles" (US Docs) skipped VOD and amassed $2.4 million. IFC picked up Mike Birbiglia's Next entry "Sleepwalk With Me," which, backed by a grassroots and filmmaker-appearance campaign--and boosted by promos from the film's producer Ira Glass's "This American Life," had one of the year's biggest opening weekend grosses in New York, before gaining VOD availability a week later. Still, it ended up grossing $2.3 million in theaters. Though the acquisition prices of all of these are not known, each was likely to have been well under $1 million.

For those films with pricier purchase costs, the road was rockier. Millennium bought "Red Lights," from "Buried" director Rodrigo Cortes and starring Robert DeNiro for around a reported $4 million. It struggled to gross $100,000 in theaters. Fox Searchlight put up $6 million-- the reported biggest buy of the festival -- for "The Sessions" (then called "The Surrogate"), which so far has only grossed $4 million, with significant marketing costs added to the expense.

Sony Pictures Classics paid far less (around $1 million) for "Smashed" (like "The Sessions" in Dramatic Competition), and grossed under a half million. FilmDistrict also put up around a million for "Safety Not Guaranteed," pushed it somewhat wider to around $4 million. Focus' Premiere buy "For a Good Time..." grossed only a bit over a million after a $2-3 million purchase.

Many other films acquired for less should either break even or eventually make profit, including both "Robot and Frank" (acquired by Sony Worldwide, distributed by IDP in the U.S.) and "Celeste and Jesse Forever," both acquired for around $2 million and grossing over $3. But at the levels of theatrical gross shown in the charts below, particularly for films not taking advantage of VOD, it remains a real risk to acquire any film.

Midnight films were a particular disappointment out of last year's crop, at least theatrically.  All eight were acquired, four during the festival, mainly for VOD value. But one went straight to DVD, and three others still are awaiting release. For a section that has provided an occassional discovery like "Buried," this was a letdown.

The other section that struggles to gain acquisition attention is World Dramatic Competition. Of last year's 14 films, only three have opened in the U.S., all to under $100,000 grosses. Four more have distributors, but have not yet been released. The other half have gone unclaimed. The section is handicapped by Sundance's January date coming right before three major European festivals -- Berlin, Rotterdam and Gothenberg -- all of which demand world premieres. The section this year is down to 12 entries, while as recently as 2008 it had 16.

But most eyes will be on the top categories and searching for something that could duplicate the Cinderella story of Hushpuppy and her Louisiana coastal friends. "Beasts" had an unusual deal with Fox Searchlight -- reportedly a $2 million minimal marketing guarantee, significant early producer participation in earnings and other considerations to seal the deal. The result not only has been profitable to all involved, and found unexpected Oscar success, but also took the sometimes unusual route of being released less than five months after its premiere (in June) rather than waiting for a relaunch in the fall. This likely helped the theatrical release be more lucrative, but didn't keep it from being noticed at years' end --a lesson likely not to be lost on the companies looking for 2013 awards contenders. And it achieved it the old-fashioned way -- by playing theaters for months, not VOD.

Below is a list of all the 2012 Sundance films, by section.

In the title section, those films in bold and underlined were acquired for distribution (usually theatrical, but in a few VOD only). Those few not in bold and not underlined have not been acquired.

After the title, the distributor for the film is listed. In most cases, the films were acquired at or after Sundance. Those acquired before have 0 at the end of the box. Those acquired during Sundance or by the end of January have (+) in the box. In a handful of cases, a broadcaster or cable network is listed as the venue for release. In a few others, two are listed, indicating a partnership. In two cases a film was turned over to a second distributor after the original deal. Though not indicated, for a few films rights were bought for territories beyond the North America, which factors into the ultimate profitability for a purchase.

The grosses are U.S./Canada domestic in most cases ("Monsieur Lazhar," a Canadian film, is U.S. only). Trying to track down international grosses for non-studio wide releases is difficult to impossible.They are in millions. Those that grossed under $100,000 are shown as <.1. "tbr" means "to be released."

In those cases where estimated acquisition price is listed (mainly for sales of $1 million or more), these are based on multiple published  reports, but in most cases cannot be confirmed. They are listed in millions.

Those films which had VOD availabilities at the same time as theatrical opening or earlier are noted.


  • 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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