After sitting out last year’s Sundance following its splashy pre-festival acquisition of Life Itself (which did not work out), Amazon Studios returned to the festival with an open checkbook, ready to spend. And spend they did, parting with $47 million in Park City, which is more money than I think any studio has ever spent at the fest. The studio made its move early, pouncing on Nisha Ganatra‘s Late Night starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson, as well as Scott Z. Burns‘ The Report starring Adam Driver, Annette Bening and Jon Hamm. A few days later, it represented the finish line for Brittany Runs a Marathon, a comedy starring Jillian Bell from playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, who based the story on his roommate. Before the festival officially ended, Amazon had also picked up the documentary One Child Nation in a high-six-figure deal, and shelled out $5 million for worldwide rights to Shia LaBeouf‘s autobiographical drama Honey Boy featuring Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges.
Prior to this year, Amazon’s track record as a buyer at Sundance included domestic rights to The Big Sick for $12 million and Manchester by the Sea for $10 million. This year, with new Amazon boss Jennifer Salke determined to make her mark and strengthen the studio’s slate, the well-financed distributor spent $13 million for U.S. rights to Late Night and $14 million apiece for worldwide rights to both Brittany (produced by Tobey Maguire) and The Report. Late Night seems to have the most commercial potential, as most critics found it to be a charming crowdpleaser in which screenwriter Kaling plays a new writer for a late night talk show hosted by Thompson. The Report couldn’t be more different, as it tells the true story of Daniel Jones’ and his exhaustive six-year investigation into the CIA’s use of torture on suspected terrorists. Driver is red-hot coming off his Oscar nomination for BlacKkKlansman, and he also has a little movie called Star Wars: Episode IX coming out later this year, which could give him a little extra boost come awards time.
Just like last year, when it bought Assassination Nation and Three Identical Strangers, Tom Quinn and Tim League‘s Neon has been extremely active thus far at Sundance, where it spent roughly $2 million to acquire the Riley Keough horror movie The Lodge. Directed by Goodnight Mommy filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz and produced by FilmNation, The Lodge finds Keough snowed in with her two future stepchildren when her psychological demons from her childhood begin to resurface. Neon also picked up Alejandro Landes‘ survival thriller Monos, which stars Julianne Nicholson as an American woman held hostage by a young group of soldiers and rebels training on a remote mountain in Latin America.
Neon also picked up a couple of partners in Park City, teaming with Topic Studios to acquire domestic rights to Julius Onah‘s psychological drama Luce, which the director co-wrote with JC Lee (based on Lee’s play) and shot in 35mm. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play a couple whose adopted son, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) completes a school assignment that worries one of his teachers (Octavia Spencer), leading to questions about identity, individuality and race. Neon also teamed with Hulu on a mid-seven-figure deal to acquire the zombie comedy Little Monsters starring Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England and Josh Gad. Deadline wrote that the Abe Forsythe-directed movie plays like Zombieland meets Kindergarten Cop, and it will receive a theatrical release before ultimately landing on the streaming service.
Hulu also bought the Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary on its own for a cool $2 million. Directed by Ben Berman, the film examines the unique life of the famed magician, whose career soared in the 1980s before he was forced to retire after being diagnosed with a terminal heart condition and given one year to live. Three years later, Berman filmed the illusionist’s epic comeback tour, which featured plenty of surprises.
Outside of arthouse divisions Fox Searchlight and Focus, the major Hollywood studios typically leave Sundance empty-handed, as wide release films can be harder to find at the indie fest. But that’s not the case this year, as New Line took a risk and bought worldwide rights to festival darling Blinded by the Light, a coming-of-age movie set to the music of Bruce Springsteen. The film hails from Gurinder Chadha, the director of Bend It Like Beckham, and follows a 16-year-old Pakistani boy growing up England in 1987, when his life is transformed by the music of The Boss, which inspires him to become a writer and gives him the courage to stand up to local bullies, as well as his own father. Interestingly enough, New Line reportedly beat out several suitors including Fox Searchlight, whose executives are on the ground in Park City looking for films even as the Fox-Disney merger looms.
A24 has had a busy festival, selling two of its productions — Rashid Johnson‘s Native Son and Pippa Bianco‘s sexual assault drama Share — to HBO Films, which bought The Tale at last year’s festival. Share certainly has themes in common with The Tale, but some industry observers question whether that film should’ve held out for a theatrical release, as it didn’t stir up nearly as much buzz as it initially did at Sundance when it debuted on HBO. We’ll see if Share suffers the same fate, or proves to be a conversation starter given the millions of subscribers that HBO has. As for Native Son, Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks adapted Richard Wright‘s classic novel, and Moonlight actor Ashton Sanders stars as Bigger Thomas, a young man who takes a job working for a powerful Chicago family, which leads to tragic consequences.
A24 wasn’t just in selling mode, however, as the edgy distributor also bought Lulu Wang‘s Chinese wedding comedy The Farewell starring Awkwafina. Every studio in Holllywood is eager to get into business with the Crazy Rich Asians star and A24 seems like the perfect home for this film, based on the success it had with films like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade.
Elsewhere, Sony Pictures Classics acquired the documentaries David Crosby: Remember My Name and Where’s My Roy Cohn. The latter film, which concerns the New York attorney who died of AIDS-related complications in 1986, hails from Matt Tyrnauer, who directed two of last year’s buzziest documentaries, Studio 54 and Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. A.J. Eaton directed the Crosby documentary, which was produced by Cameron Crowe and sold for low-seven-figures.
Speaking of low-seven-figure deals, Gavin Hood‘s whistleblower drama Official Secrets sold to IFC Films for just under $2 million. The film stars Keira Knightley as a British Secret Service officer who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ralph Fiennes co-stars alongside Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Rhys Ifans.
Meanwhile, The Orchard (which will soon be renamed) and its new financiers 1091 Media bought Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage‘s Appalachian thriller Them That Follow as well as Halston, a documentary about the famous fashion designer. The Orchard previously worked with Halston director Frédéric Tcheng on the acclaimed 2015 documentary Dior and I, which turned a tidy profit by grossing $1.1 million at the box office, and the distributor will be hoping for similar results here. Them That Follow concerns members of an isolated community of Pentecostal snake handlers who risk their lives to attest themselves before God. Walton Goggins and Alice Englert star alongside this year’s Oscar hopeful Olivia Colman (The Favourite), while the supporting cast includes Kaitlyn Dever, Jim Gaffigan, Thomas Mann and Lewis Pullman.
Amazon and Hulu aren’t the only active streamers at Sundance, as Apple has acquired global rights to Minhal Baig‘s Hala. The drama stars talented up-and-comer Geraldine Viswanathan (Blockers) and was executive produced by Jada Pinkett Smith. Netflix also made its presence felt in Park City with its acquisition of Rachel Lears‘ documentary Knock Down the House featuring rising politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as well as other progressive candidates who try to take on the establishment. Apparently there has been a bidding war brewing all week for this title between Netflix and its streaming rivals Amazon and Hulu, as well as Sony Pictures Classics. While the latter distributor initially had the upper hand, as the filmmakers were seeking “robust theatrical distribution” per Variety, the bidding escalated and when that happens, Netflix typically wins. The Big Red ‘N’ reportedly paid a jaw-dropping $10 million for the AOC doc, which is a lot for a non-fiction film, but clearly she has struck a chord with the public and the media, making the film a must-see for many.
That wasn’t the only splashy deal Netflix made, as shortly after the festival, the streamer nabbed Zac Efron‘s Ted Bundy movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Vile and Evil in a reported $9 million deal. Netflix is planning a fall release for the film, which garnered mostly positive reviews on the strength of Efron’s creepy performance. The film is a great fit for Netflix, which just released The Ted Bundy Tapes from the same director, Joe Berlinger. They know exactly how many people watched that non-fiction series and who those people are, so clearly they thought it was worth it to acquire the Efron movie.
Netflix also picked up the documentary American Factory about General Motors, and gave the Indian anthology drama series Delhi Crime a two-season order. The series makes its world premiere Tuesday night at Sundance as part of the festival’s Indie Episodic section before hitting Netflix on March 22. The first season is reportedly inspired by the Delhi Police’s December 2012 investigation into the horrific gang rape of a young woman, which reverberated across India and the rest of the world.
Finally, National Geographic spent $3 million to acquire the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced documentary Sea of Shadows, while Ava DuVernay‘s ARRAY banner acquired MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, a documentary about the late Māori filmmaker Merata Mita. Not only was she the first Indigenous woman in the world to direct a film on her own, but she served as a longtime advisor to the Sundance Institute and actually has a Sundance fellowship named after her. It marks the 20th feature film acquisition for ARRAY, which DuVernay launched nine years ago.
There are still a few high-profile acquisition titles still available, including comedy Big Time Adolescence starring Pete Davidson. Stay tuned for more sales from Park City, and we’ll continue to update the list below.
A24 – The Farewell
Amazon Studios – Brittany Runs a Marathon; Honey Boy; Late Night; One Child Nation; The Report
Apple – Hala
HBO Films – Native Son; Share
Hulu – Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary
IFC Films – Official Secrets
National Geographic – Sea of Shadows
Neon – Little Monsters (with Hulu); The Lodge; Luce (with Topic Studios); Monos
Netflix – American Factory; Delhi Crime; Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile; I Am Mother; Knock Down the House
New Line – Blinded by the Light
The Orchard – Halston; Them That Follow
Screen Media – Corporate Animals
Sony Pictures Classics – David Crosby: Remember My Name; Where’s My Roy Cohn?