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Sundance, once a hotbed for the movie business, is trying to gain a foothold

The past two years have been a time of great upheaval in the film business – and at the Sundance Film Festival.

Between dwindling box office ratings, studio consolidation, and shrinking content spending after the streaming giants were slapped by Wall Street, few were sure what kind of market there was for new movies at the current Sundance – typically a hotbed of acquisitions for the brightest lights in the independent film world.

Even the festival’s opening gala last Thursday, the first in person since 2020, felt weakened by the realistic films.

“Recent years have brought extraordinary challenges to our industry, along with opportunities to meet the needs of artists and reach audiences in new ways,” Sundance Chief Executive Joana Vicente told those gathered. “And as many of this year’s films show, this is a moment when so much is at stake – the health of our planet, human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech and democracy itself.”

Not exactly a solemn introduction.

A collective sigh of relief swept through Utah’s Wasatch mountain range on Monday, where within two hours two of the high-profile films premiering at the festival found eager buyers. Netflix has spent $20 million to acquire the worldwide rights to thriller Fair Play, while Searchlight Pictures has spent nearly $8 million on musical theater geek mockumentary Theater Camp, starring Ben Platt .

A day later, Apple TV+ snapped up music drama Flora & Son for $20 million, and indie distributor A24 bought Australian horror film Talk to Me for a wide theatrical release this summer.

Despite the deals, the state of the films and how audiences will view them remained a fundamental concern.

“Everyone is wringing their hands over the industry,” said Vinay Singh, chief executive officer of Archer Gray, a production company whose film The Persian Version screened at Sundance in competition. “A lot of people have lost their jobs. There are cost reduction measures in content output. People are concerned.”

In fact, no one seems to know anymore what kind of movie is worthy of a theatrical release and what should go straight to a streaming service. Sales and marketing executives must figure out not only how to sell a film to an increasingly fickle audience, but also how to navigate the needs of corporate parents, often huge conglomerates whose business priorities are in flux.

Also, there’s always the fear of succumbing to “Sundance fever” — making reckless decisions at high altitude because of the audience’s enthusiasm. Over the decades, both streaming services and theatrical distributors have overpaid for films at the festival. Harvey Weinstein spent $10 million on Happy, Texas in 1999 only to see it flop at the box office. Focus Features paid $10 million for Hamlet 2 in 2008, and in 2019 Amazon secured three films for a total of $41 million, while New Line paid $15 million for Blinded by the Light, just by 12 million US dollars gross. And that was when the industry was healthier.

Now that so much depends on every decision, a positive reaction to a film at Sundance is no longer enough to guarantee it will attract a theatrical distribution deal.

“I would like to think that this film could have done well in theaters,” said Ram Bergman, producer of Fair Play, one of the festival’s most critically acclaimed and in-demand films. But despite the enthusiasm of traditional studios, he said there was little confidence that the $5 million R-rated thriller starring Phoebe Dynevor (“Bridgerton”) and Alden Ehrenreich (“Solo: A Star Wars Story”) the opposite could be achieved with superhero glasses without an prohibitively expensive marketing budget.

“You’re dealing with a lot of studios that have convinced themselves that these films can’t do very well in theaters,” Mr. Bergman said. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And when a streamer, let’s say Netflix, really wants to get behind it and treat it as one of their high priority films, it’s hard to keep up.”

Therein lies the challenge. Most filmmakers come to Sundance expecting their film to be shown on big screens nationwide. The reality is that their films are exactly the kinds that do poorly at the box office: small, cheap, complex, and starless.

Add in the fact that independent chains like ArcLight Cinemas and Landmark Theaters, which were traditional supporters of indie cuisine, have closed and the calculus required to make these films successful becomes even more difficult.

Searchlight is counting on fans of Mr. Platt (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and live theater in general to power “Theater Camp,” which celebrates all those who dream of making it big on Broadway. The thought goes that if Mr. Platt can sell out Madison Square Garden like he did with his one-man show, he can lure audiences to a movie theater. (However, Mr. Platt’s last film, the adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen, only grossed $15 million at the domestic box office.)

“This is an audience favorite and it was designed for an audience from the start,” said Erik Feig, managing director of PictureStart, one of the producers of Theater Camp. “Nevertheless, we didn’t reduce our risk by pre-selling. We took a flyer. We researched the market, but the comparisons change every 90 seconds, so you’re kind of building something for a business model that died out two weeks later.”

Other lively projects didn’t generate the kind of sales Sundance, which ends Sunday, is typically known for. “Cat Person” pleased festival viewers, but critics slammed it, particularly for deviating from the viral New York short story it was based on. “Magazine Dreams” features an Oscar-caliber performance from Jonathan Majors (“Lovecraft Country”), but he plays a character who goes insane and starts wielding a loaded gun — a particularly hard-to-buy film after the pair recent mass shootings in California.

The documentary Justice, which takes an investigative look at the nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and was added to the festival schedule with much fanfare at the last minute, also disappointed critics.

The Justice filmmakers say they’ve received new tips since their film was announced that they plan to follow up on. It’s just not clear that the film, which was self-financed by director Doug Liman, best known for his sizzling action films, will find a distributor willing to back an uncompleted project.

Despite the challenges, people were excited to be back at Sundance in person.

“I feel a deep gratitude for being in this room and watching a movie,” Davis Guggenheim said at the premiere of his documentary Still, about Michael J. Fox and his protracted battle with Parkinson’s disease.

“Theater Camp” brought its actors onto the stage to perform. The documentary “Going Varsity in Mariachi” was complemented by a live performance by Mariachi Juvenil de Utah, and the cast of “Flora & Son” rapped one of his songs. Screenings were often sold out, and the number of standing ovations was an immediate indication of a film’s reception. Still, buyers were much more selective.

“I think it’s natural that things don’t happen overnight,” said Archer Gray’s Mr Singh. “I think that’s okay. I even think it might be a sign of health because there’s so much at stake.”

Mr. Feig echoed this feeling.

“It’s definitely a challenging market,” he said. “For every one of those films that found buyers, there probably wasn’t 25 different offers for each of them. There can be more than a handful. You just have to build them sensibly and know what your potential options are.”

He also noted the festival’s combination of established names and emerging talent, adding with more than a pinch of optimism, “That’s why Sundance is so amazing – it’s a discovery of fresh new voices. You saw that on Fair Play. You can see it in “Talk to me”. You saw that on Theater Camp. All brand new filmmakers, with their very first film, and they pushed through, they made noise and they found studio partners.”

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