Sundance Sales: ‘Palm Springs’ Makes a Splash, But Is Its Festival Record Legit?

     January 30, 2020


The ugly truth about most film reporters is that when a press release comes in, they write it up quickly without questioning it. And so it goes with Neon and Hulu’s joint acquisition of the Andy Samberg movie Palm Springs, which according to an official announcement, sold for $17,500,000.69—making it a Sundance record. Indeed, that’s 69 cents (haha!) more than Nate Parker‘s slavery drama Birth of a Nation. Break out the champagne!

Here’s the thing: I don’t think it did set a festival record, because this deal includes streaming rights. I haven’t seen the paperwork on Birth of a Nation, but as far as I know, that was strictly a theatrical deal. Assuming that the streaming rights to Palm Springs are worth more than 69 cents, it’s fair to say that its theatrical rights simply did not go for as much as Birth of a Nation, though the price tag on Palm Springs certainly remains impressive nonetheless. Just remember to account for inflation, which is one thing when it comes to box office records, but means more when it comes to festival sale records.

Never missing an opportunity to crack a joke, the Lonely Island guys issued a joint statement. “We spent over $85 million of our own money on this movie, WE ARE TAKING A BATH on this deal. We hope Neon and Hulu are happy but we definitely have a lot of explaining to do to our families,” said producers Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Becky Sloviter and Samberg.


Image via Fox Searchlight

Palm Springs, which is a crowdpleasing comedy love story with a twist, was one of a handful of films to find distribution at this year’s festival. Empowered by its new Disney overlords, Searchlight Pictures (formerly Fox Searchlight) came roaring out of the gate early, dropping $12 million on worldwide rights to David Bruckner‘s grief-themed horror movie The Night House, which boasts a fantastic performance from Rebecca Hall (you can read Perri’s review here). She’s a great actress, no doubt, but if you look at her box office track record, I’m just not sure this sale makes a ton of sense. I suppose that if you’re going to spend eight figures at Sundance, it should probably be for a horror movie, since that’s a commercial genre with a loyal fanbase that will go see a movie without a major star. However, Hall is playing a grieving, alcoholic widow here, so she’s not really a fun character to spend time with on a Friday night at the movies. The Night House felt like a streaming play to me, but hey, I was wrong about the box office potential of The Witch, so what do I know? Regardless of the price, I don’t think I would’ve pegged Searchlight as the buyer for this one, as the studio doesn’t have a ton of experience releasing horror movies. If The Night House had sold to A24 or Neon, maybe then I’d understand it, but this deal is a bit perplexing, though I certainly understand why the filmmakers said ‘yes’ to Searchlight, given their impressive track record. I’m happy for all involved, but from a financial perspective, I’m not sure it’ll end up making a ton of sense. We’ll have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, Amazon spent $12 million on Alan Ball’s (Six Feet Under) new movie Uncle Frank starring Paul Bettany and young It star Sophia Lillis. They play an uncle and niece who take a road trip to South Carolina to bury his father, who disowned him when he found out Frank was gay. They’re joined on the trip by Frank’s lover, Walid, played by Ball’s own longtime partner Peter Macdissi. The supporting cast includes Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale and Stephen Root, and Bettany is earning some of the best reviews of his career. The subject matter involving self-acceptance and forgiveness should strike a chord with indie audiences.

Undaunted by the perception surrounding its Sundance shopping spree last year, Amazon also acquired North American rights to Herself, which hails from Phyllida Lloyd, director of Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady. There aren’t any major stars in this one, but I think it will resonate, as it concerns a single mother who escapes her abusive partner with her two young children, only to find herself struggling with the welfare and housing systems. She decides to build her own home with the help of some friends and neighbors, and together, they rebuild their lives from the ground up. I feel good about both these pick-ups, and for the record, I thought Amazon’s Sundance haul last year—Late Night, Honey Boy, The Report, Brittany Runs a Marathon—was really good. These two movies may not be the company’s next Big Sick, but they feel like money well spent to me.


Image via Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

Another acquisition that could prove to be smart is Lionsgate’s mid-seven-figure deal for the British spy movie Ironbark starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan and Jessie Buckley. Dominic Cooke directed the film, which follows a British businessman (Cumberbatch) who is unwittingly recruited to help defuse one of the greatest international conflicts in history—the Cuban Missile Crisis. Roadside Attractions will handle the theatrical release for this well-reviewed Cold War thriller later this year.

Not to be outdone, A24 took out its wallet and ponied up mid-seven-figures for Kajillionaire, the new movie from indie sensation Miranda July. This Annapurna-Plan B collaboration stars Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as con artists who have spent 26 years training their only daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) the tricks of the trade. During one of their heists, they convince a kind stranger (Gina Rodriguez) to join their next scheme, and though she strikes an unlikely connection with Old Dolio, this newcomer may be up to some tricks of her own. Variety broke the Kajillionaire news, reporting that A24 beat out Neon, Focus and Bleecker Street for the film. Read Matt’s review here.

On the documentary front, Sony Pictures Classics gobbled up The Truffle Hunters, while Magnolia teamed with Topic Studios to acquire the ACLU documentary The Fight in a low-seven figure deal. The Fight concerns the ACLU’s efforts to stop President Trump‘s crackdown on illegal immigration, which he began in earnest within a week of his inauguration.

Multiple films entered the festival with distribution, including the Anthony Hopkins movie The Father, the documentary Mucho Mucho Amor and the Midnight entry His House, while streaming service Shudder picked up La Llorona and the dreadful Scare Me. Expect the Julianne Moore-as-Gloria Steinem movie The Glorias to sell soon along with the 9/11-themed drama Worth starring Michael Keaton.

Deadline broke most of the acquisition news mentioned in this report. To read my Sundance reviews of Bad Hair, Spree and Run Sweetheart Run, just click on ’em.

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