The Reality of Film Fests & Bidding Wars
by Mandi Harrison
It’s that special time of year again. Robert Redford has appeared and seen his shadow- The Sundance Film Festival is happening! Starting January 24th and going through February 3rd, Park City, Utah is flooded with actors, filmmakers, writers, critics, agents, managers, publicists, stylists, sponsors and movie lovers that were lucky enough to get passes. It’s like the Capitol during The Hunger Games, except instead of tributes fighting to the death, movies are competing for awards and distribution and rave reviews. Photo booths, food, drinks, and more swag then your (assistant’s) arms can carry. Everyone is in town for the year’s unofficial official start of festival season, ready to promote, pitch and schmooze to anyone that will listen.
Sundance started in 1978 as The Utah/ US Film Festival, Robert Redford serving as chairman. In 1979, he founded The Sundance Institute as a way to discover and support independent filmmakers. The festival was renamed The Sundance in 1984, and it has grown into the largest independent festival in the world. The festival provides independent filmmakers from all over the world a showcase their narrative features, shorts, and documentaries. Countless filmmakers have gotten their start at Sundance, including David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Ryan Coogler, Damien Chazelle, Catherine Hardwicke, Ava Duvernay, and Todd Haynes. Every year, thousands of entries are submitted to compete for a coveted spot, in the hopes of finding an audience and finding distribution.
There are thousands of film festivals, and Sundance is one of the top contenders for the most influential come award season. It is definitely the top INDEPENDENT fest. The other big dogs are funded through the Hollywood Foreign Press, and other big time investors. Sundance is a non-profit organization; any monies raised that isn’t used to cover costs of the festival goes to the Sundance Institute and their programs for developing filmmakers.
There’s another group of people who swoop in for the festivities- studio acquisition teams. They are like scouts for the movie studios, going to festivals to watch movies and look for ones to purchase for distribution. As you can imagine, it can get extremely competitive trying to get these acquisition teams to view your movie. That’s why having a strong (positive) word of mouth is key. Having a publicist at the festival is extremely helpful for building a buzz for your movie and get seats filled. Sold out viewings and engaged audiences is what these scouts are looking for. Yes the overall quality of the film and subject matter, but their main goal is to find movies that will fill seats and have word of mouth.
In order to be eligible for competition at Sundance, your film can not have received any money from a movie studio or have a contract for distribution. Your film must be completely, independently produced. Movie studios soon learned that Sundance was great place to acquire movies, not to mention having instant focus groups and the possibility of discovering the next Oscar winner. The movie is already made, it’s been tested in front of audiences; the acquisition team just has to negotiate a deal for the rights to distribute the finished film- get it front of the masses. Sometimes there is so much buzz about a movie that a bidding war occurs between the studios. I personally believe that some movies all but have signed the contract with a studio before Sundance, in order to still qualify for competition, and then announce a deal had been made at the festival. It’s technically not a lie- the contract isn’t signed, but the filmmakers and the studio are basically calling dibs on each other.
Over the years, there have been some incredible discoveries and deals made at Sundance. Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies & videotapes started the indie movement of the 90’s. Reservoir Dogs started Quentin Tarantino’s directing career, and inspired a whole generation of film makers. Ed Burns’s The Brothers McMullen was the first film that Fox Searchlight purchased. Kevin Smith’s Clerks was entirely self-made and became the legend of Sundance. Movies like Little Miss Sunshine, The Way Way Back, The Kids Are All Right and Brooklyn have gone on to be nominated (and win) multiple awards. The studio has to believe that they will make a profit on the movie, and they have to be willing to stand behind the movie. There can be great benefits, but the downside is there as well.
It’s very easy to get swept up in the whirlwind of the festival- the elevation of the mountains and all the excitement surrounding the festivities. Movies can be picked up and not do well, due to being with the wrong studio, the wrong marketing or being the wrong movie. For every unexpected hit, there are movies that are expected to do great things and they fail miserably. In 2016, Fox Searchlight spent $17.5 million on The Birth os a Nation, which is the highest amount spent at Sundance. It was being groomed to be an Academy Award contender, and with all the press surrounding the film, a controversy arose involving the filmmaker and his friend and alleged sexual assault. The film did not do well at the box office, causing the studio to cancel the European release and sweep the film under the rug. It’s one of several movies that have not lived up to their potential. Even at Sundance, it’s buyer beware.
After The Birth of a Nation, studios have been a little more cautious when it comes to acquiring films. There have been some beneficial purchases, Mudbound (for $12.5 million, 4 Oscar nominations), The Big Sick (for $12 million, 1 Oscar nomination), Call Me By Your Name ($6 million, 4 Oscar nominations), the documentary RBG, Sorry To Bother You and Blindspotting, among others. These movies show what makes a movie isn’t the budget- it’s the story and the message.
This year’s Sundance appears to have some great films- at least some great word of mouth. We usually start seeing some of these films in theaters in the summer or fall, and with Netflix and Amazon in the distribution game, even sooner sometimes. There have been several high-profile purchases this year, with female directors and more representation. There are several that we are looking forward to, like Brittany Runs a Marathon, The Report, Hala and Blinded By The Light, but there are two in particular that we can’t wait for. The first is called The Farewell, directed by LuLu Wang and starring Awkwafina, the standout from Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians last year. It’s about a woman who travels to China to visiting her grandmother, who has no idea she has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It is rumored to have been purchased by A24 for $6 million and will make Awkwafina a star.
The movie I am most excited about however is Late Night, written by and starring Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra. It also stars Emma Thompson as a late night talk show host who is forced to take a younger female writer under her wing (Mindy) as proof that she cares about diversity. Mindy has been working on this movie for years; it was originally scheduled to be made with Paul Feig as director under a studio, but life happens, and after changing schedules, sickness and babies, Late Night was finally made independently and was purchased by Amazon for $12 million. This is a really good fit for this movie; a lot of people at Sundance compared it to The Big Sick and Amazon did great with nurturing and promoting that movie. I really can’t wait for this movie- Mindy is one of my favorite writers. She has a definite voice and she knows how to use it. I can almost guarantee that she wrote all of your favorite episodes of The Office (except the one with Kevin and the chili; she hated that one- I’m choosing to overlook that fact) Mindy could potentially get an Oscar nomination for Late Night- not too bad for a girl who got noticed for a play she wrote and starred in about Matt Damon & Ben Affleck, two other Boston filmmakers who won an Oscar for their first screenplay.