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PARK CITY, Utah —The corporate movie business is beset by bruising forces — slowing attendance, a lack of bankable brands and competition from new forms of entertainment.

Don’t tell that to the people heading to the Sundance Film Festival.

The decidedly more independent Utah film gathering — and the market it anchors — has been booming of late. Driven by digital players hungry for content, Sundance last year saw three films sell in the neighborhood of $10 million, believed to be a modern record. At least five others sold for more than $5 million.

“These are the good times, enjoy the good times, have fun,” said Barry Mendel, Judd Apatow’s producing partner who produced one of last year’s mega-sales, “The Big Sick.” “Because once the streamers get to their optimal subscriber numbers, the prices start coming down.”

As Sundance begins its 2018 edition in Park City on Thursday, the question weighs on the minds of many in the film business: Can the feast continue?

And just as important: Should it?

The frenzy for prestige-oriented Sundance films has come about as distributors seek content to fend off competitors — it’s a microcosm of the trend that has fueled a vault-emptying move by Amazon to pay more than $200 million for a “Lord of the Rings” TV license and Disney’s $52.4 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But what many publicly laud — few in Hollywood would ever declare opposition to money pouring into art — is privately a source of concern. The flow of Sundance dollars has prompted fears of a bubble, one that could imperil the long-term health of some of the nation’s major creative players.

“I think more than ever we need to be careful — for our company and for the industry — not to overspend,” said a top executive and a regular Sundance buyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

After all, the person noted, some of the biggest buys last year did not pan out at the box office.

The Sundance market is an informal but high-stakes event. Some 100 independently financed movies, many seeking distribution, will be unveiled to audiences over the next 10 days at screening venues around Park City. Buyers attend these screenings amid journalists and fans. Then, for the hottest titles, they rush to the condos of sales agents to negotiate prices and deal terms, in discussions that can go deep into the night.

The process has yielded some of the most talked-about hits of the modern film era: “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Precious,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Kids Are All Right.”

It also has generated flops like “Son of Rambow,” “The Spitfire Grill” and “Hamlet 2,” all of which sold for many millions of dollars at Sundance only to turn essentially into an afterthought in a movie-trivia game.

The goal for every film professional over the coming days: Avoid becoming a trivia question.

To do that, they are patterning themselves after recent Sundance hits. The success of the weighty rom-com “Big Sick” in the summer has touched off interest in any comedy with a mix of seriousness and heart, a list that includes the post-apocalyptic tale “I Think We’re Alone Now,” the heist movie “American Animals” and Mendel’s latest entry, “Juliet, Naked.”

Equally of interest are movies about race and identity that toy with genre, after Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” became the low-budget sensation of 2017, grossing $255 million on a budget of less than $5 million. Though the movie wasn’t acquired at Sundance, it had a sneak screening at the festival that kick-started its spectacular run.

Among the movies with a potential “Get Out” vibe — and sales ambition — are race- and gender-themed story experiments such as “Blindspotting,” “Monsters and Men,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Assassination Nation.” Many take chances of some kind — “Sorry to Bother You” blends in magical realism in an alternative-universe Oakland in a movie directed by the rapper-activist Boots Riley — in the hope of attracting buyers with novelty.

“What’s so great about Sundance is you can have a film with no widely known elements and turn it into a total sales sensation,” said Bec Smith, an agent at UTA, which is representing “American Animals” among other titles.

But just buying off festival hype can be risky.

Just ask Fox Searchlight, which paid $17.5 million, a festival record, for Nate Parker’s historical drama “The Birth of a Nation” after its rapturous screening in 2016. The number was fueled by Netflix, which bid at least $20 million, driving Searchlight way out of its usual price range. (Filmmakers preferred Searchlight once it got close to Netflix’s number because the former embraces theatrical distribution while Netflix does not.)

Yet Netflix executives breathed a sigh of relief when Parker was revealed shortly before release to be the subject of a sexual-assault scandal, torpedoing the movie at the box office.

It wasn’t the only misstep in the current boom cycle.

Last year, the $12.5 million for “Big Sick” turned into nearly $50 million in box office and plenty of critical and awards heat.

That was offset, however, by the roughly $10 million paid by Searchlight for the hip-hop dramedy “Patti Cake$” and the $12 million Netflix shelled out to acquire the race-themed historical drama “Mudbound.” Neither has made a huge impact, and both are now seen, at least outside those companies, as overspends. (Because they lack traditional box-office metrics, Netflix movie performances can be difficult to evaluate.)

Whether these moments will prove sobering for those companies this year remains a question. Netflix, in particular, with its deep pockets and recent Sundance losses at the hands of rival Amazon — two years ago the Seattle-based company also acquired the brass ring, eventual Oscar winner “Manchester by the Sea”— is believed to be as motivated as ever.

(The streamer boom does not only affect acquisitions, of course: Netflix in particular has funded original film productions, such as the recent Will Smith action-adventure “Bright.” But the boom has centered on independent films; it’s easier to stock empty cupboards using a quick series of acquisitions at Sundance than it is to plot out development and production of new movies from scratch.)

To guard against costly missteps in this climate, some companies have taken positions of extreme discipline. Longtime player Roadside Attractions, for instance, which partnered with Amazon on “Manchester” in 2016, has largely stayed out of big-game hunting. Last year, it bought one movie, “Beatriz at Dinner,” for a price estimated at below $2 million. It reaped solid if modest rewards with $7 million in theatrical receipts.

“We have to take the long view,” said Howard Cohen, co-chief of Roadside. “We can’t pick out the shiniest thing and compete. We have to find what has an audience and makes sense for us to buy.”

Of course, this has also meant not jumping in the mix for the buzziest title.

Some have tried to steer around the streamer juggernauts in other ways. A24, the studio behind “Moonlight,” has sought films with defined niches, like the hipster lost-romance “A Ghost Story” and the low-key ultra-Orthodox drama “Menashe.” The distributor took in only about $2 million for each film, but given the low prices, these were considered wins.

Netflix executives say that their goal is not to heat up a market but simply to secure movies the company believes in.

“We’re just another buyer,” said head of acquisitions Matt Brodlie. “There are always going to be new players, and hopefully we, along with others, provide more good options for filmmakers.”

Also buoying the market is an influx of independent capital that finances the movies in the first place. That generally happens when the stock market is robust and high net-worth individuals have spare change jangling around.

Some filmmakers say this kind of money, along with the big distribution payouts, are not necessarily good for creativity.

“It’s great that people can make a living and are being paid handsomely to make content,” said Jim Hosking, a director who will premiere his new movie, an offbeat romance titled “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn,” at the festival in the hope of landing a deal. “But when I look at what’s being made with it I don’t know that a lot of it gets me excited. People who pay a lot of money tend to make what’s quite conservative and derivative.”

Still, it’s unlikely the trend will slow down until Netflix and Amazon decide they don’t need new movies that badly. And by then, deeper changes may have been wrought.

Some in the industry quietly point out that a spending spree has caused a shakeout before.

In the mid-2000s, Sundance prices rose thanks to an influx of so-called studio “specialty divisions” — new units created by the likes of Paramount and Warner Bros. Flush with cash from the DVD boom, studios built these companies to acquire movies out of Sundance. They all spent big at the festival.

But the DVD boom was followed by a crash, many of the acquisitions proved to be failures, and within a few years a lot of the divisions were shuttered.

Industry players said they’re cautiously optimistic that won’t happen again — at least they hope it won’t.

“I don’t think you’ll have the same bottom falling out,” Mendel said. Then he paused, less confident. “You had VHS and DVD. Now you have streaming companies. And when that ends I don’t know where the money comes from.”


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Source : https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2018/01/18/as-sundance-kicks-off-buyers-dream-of-finding-the-next-big-sick-and-avoiding-the-next-big-flop/

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