It was, to quote a certain Victorian author, the best of times and the worst of times at the Sundance Film Festival. Or, in the words of another one of history’s great scribes: “The players gonna play, play, play, play, play and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
Those, of course, are the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” And while the song isn’t featured in Swift’s documentary “Miss Americana” — most likely, as a result of a legal battle with Scooter Braun, who now owns the catalog of most of Swift’s hits — there was still plenty to see and hear. “Miss Americana” is packed with montages set to music, behind-the-scenes song writing sessions, surprising confessions and cameos from Swift’s cats, Olivia Benson and Meredith Grey. The Netflix documentary, the most high-profile film to premiere at this year’s Sundance, delivers — especially for the die-hard Swifties.
But there was also something funny about “Miss Americana” kicking off the latest edition of Sundance. The movie arrived at the festival having already secured distribution with one of Hollywood’s biggest entertainment companies. And a mere week after it debuted to exclusively to the Park City crowd, it was already playing on Netflix to millions of streaming subscribers around the world.
That paradox — are independent movies getting bigger or smaller? — cast a shadow over Sundance. On the plus side, Sundance did see its largest deal ever, after Neon and Hulu splurged a whopping $17,500,000.69 (beating a record set four years ago by 69 cents) for “Palm Springs,” a comedy starring Andy Samberg in an updated take on “Groundhog Day.”
But that transaction also seemed to capture all the tensions of the Sundance market — and by extension, the independent film business. What does it mean to have Hulu pay that much money for a movie? Will it really screen in a significant number of theaters? And even with that sale, which came together in a relatively leisurely pace, it was clear that the era of Sundance all-night bidding wars with traditional studios trying to yank titles away from one another are gone. But what new world order has been left in its place?
In the old days, a movie such as “Palm Springs” would have to gross $30 million domestically and $60 million globally to turn a profit. But Hulu doesn’t rely on box office returns. It’s more interested in attracting and retaining subscribers. That makes it more difficult for studios that still depend on ticket sales to make money to compete for films with these deep pocketed streamers.
“I don’t even understand these valuations,” one distributor mused privately. “I don’t get how these tech companies are justifying these prices. It’s a different business from the one that I’ve been working in.”
Elsewhere, the reception to movies was much colder. As Sundance crawls into its closing days, a majority of the 100-something titles that screened in the snowy theaters of Park City are still actively seeking distribution. Many agreed that the narrative features that played were not as strong as they had been in other years, nor as powerful as they need to be to break through the hurdle of getting moviegoers to buy a theater ticket.
Amazon Studios, which spent a hefty $40 million-plus last year on a slate — “Late Night,” “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” “The Report” and “Honey Boy” — that fizzled at the box office (the company claims they did well on streaming), remained active. It bought “Uncle Frank,” a road comedy with Paul Bettany, for $12 million and nabbed the Irish drama “Herself.” Searchlight Pictures shelled out $12 million for “The Night House,” a horror film with Rebecca Hall. And Sony Pictures Classics, which bought the Anthony Hopkins drama “The Father” before the festival started, also snagged distribution rights to “The Truffle Hunters,” a well-reviewed documentary.
Tom Bernard, the co-head of Sony Pictures Classics, said he felt that studios were more conservative in their bids than in past years. “I think people came to their senses this year,” he said. “You’re not seeing the same sort of frivolous buying.”
There also seemed to be cold feet, and not just because of the snow that had landed on the ground. Netflix, which is distributing the Swift film and the opening night documentary “Crip Camp,” didn’t buy anything during the festival. As of now, IFC, Roadside, Bleecker Street, and several other players have yet to unveil any big pacts.
In addition to “Miss Americana,” there were other movies that landed with a splash. But they too already had homes. “Promising Young Woman,” a revenge story starring Carey Mulligan that received some of the best reviews out of Park City, will come out this spring from Focus Features. “Zola,” a drama about two exotic dancers, is already attached to A24. And Sony Pictures Classics pickup “The Father” is generating Oscar buzz for Hopkins’ performance as a man losing his grip on reality.
Not everything made it out of Utah alive. Netflix’s other major title, Dee Rees’ drama “The Last Thing He Wanted,” starring Anne Hathaway as a reporter in the Reagan era, was met with savage reviews. “One of the worst movies I’ve seen in 20 years of Sundance,” the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr harrumphed on Twitter.
On Friday night, the first official day of the festival, two premieres were obviously lacking something. First, “Ironbark,” a drama about a British businessman turned spy during the Cold War, screened at the Eccles Theatre without its star Benedict Cumberbatch, who was making a movie in New Zealand. Then came “Worth,” starring Michael Keaton as the lawyer in charge of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. He, too, was MIA, making an action film in Romania. “Enjoy Sundance and go easy on the swag,” he said in a message that co-star Amy Ryan read to the crowd, an acknowledgement that Sundance isn’t just about the movies. It’s also a great, big, branded happening that attracts everything from Dockers to Acura hoping to sell clothes and cars on the back of that indie cred.
What Sundance lacked in movie stars it made up for in one other high-profile figure. The biggest name in Park City hailed from the last presidential election. Hillary Clinton, the subject of “Hillary,” a four hour docu-series that will be released on Hulu, touched down in Utah, and gamely showed up for a series of Q&As, screenings and candid interviews. The former Secretary of State even grabbed dinner at Bangkok Thai, the favorite restaurant of critics and reporters who are looking get a quick meal between films. As the crowd erupted in applause, Clinton waved, genuinely enjoying herself in a crowd of so many movie fans.
It’s a feeling that Hollywood should remember, or at least needs to recreate. If independent movies want to complete with all the other distractions out there — buzzy TV series, video games, the Internet, the non-stop scandals emanating from the White House — they are going to need to be, in their own way, cinematic events. As for the quiet, slow-burning subtlety that used to characterize some of the discoveries at Sundance, buyers might ending up saying “shake it off, shake it off.”