How Netflix and Amazon Are Shaking Up Sundance 2016

Source: Sundance Film Festival

Source: Sundance Film Festival

Netflix and Amazon have already had a major impact on the television industry and now, both are continuing to make waves in the film world as well. The two streaming services are shaking up the market at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, currently leading the pack as the top buyers of the festival so far.

Though this isn’t the first time that either Netflix or Amazon has attended Sundance, 2016 is already marking a huge turning point for each company. Whereas both streaming services have barely made a splash with their respective bids in previous years, the two have drastically changed their tactic this year, employing an aggressive and formidable buying strategy that has put them well ahead of traditional distributors.

According to The New York Times, the two streaming services are the ones essentially “driving the deal-making” this year, landing some of the biggest acquisitions of the festival. Case in point? Within only the first four days of Sundance, the two companies picked up a combined seven films, for a total cost of over $30 million.

Amazon was the first to make headlines, shelling out a whopping $10 million for Manchester by the Sea (above), the buzzy drama starring Casey Affleck that earned a standing ovation during its debut. The streaming service beat out the likes of Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, and other major studios for the film — and that was just the beginning. The company also managed to snatch up the movie, Love and Friendship, based on the Jane Austen novella; Author: The J.T. LeRoy story, a much-discussed documentary about the literary persona, and Complete Unknown, starring Rachel Weisz as a mysterious dinner guest.

Not to be outdone, Netflix also made its fair share of notable deals. Perhaps it’s buzziest deal was Tallulah, the comedy drama starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney that sold for about $5 million.

Dave Mangels/Getty Images

Dave Mangels/Getty Images

It also paid $7 million for the global streaming rights to The Fundamentals of Caring, a Sundance movie starring Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts and Selena Gomez. Other purchases include Under the Shadow, a horror movie set in Iran.

Even when it wasn’t actually acquiring a title, Netflix still managed to break the bank. The company drove the price for Nate Parker’s slave-revolt drama, The Birth of a Nation to record-breaking heights, offering $20 million in a competitive bidding war. Parker eventually opted to go with Fox, which didn’t have much choice but to pay an all-time Sundance record of $17.5 million.

Now it’s just a matter of how each company will go about releasing these movies. The streaming services have taken very different strategies in the past to varied levels of success. Netflix launched its most high profile film yet, Beasts of No Nation, in 31 stateside theaters and on their streaming service the same day. Though the critically acclaimed film performed well on Netflix, it didn’t make much noise at the box office and ended up earning no Academy Award nods.

Amazon has been a little bit more willing to play nice, partnering with Roadside Attractions to release Spike Lee’s Chi-raq exclusively in 305 theaters before putting it up for digital rental less than a month later. Again, the movie earned high critical praise, but not much attention at the box office or during award season. Regardless, the streaming service is reportedly teaming up with Roadside again to debut Love and Friendship.

It’s tactic for other titles is more up in the air. Manchester by the Sea is widely considered to be a lock as a nominee for the 2017 Oscars. The question is, will that be enough to get it into more theaters prior to its digital release or will most theater chains continue to shut out Netflix and Amazon, considering any of their movies day-and-date releases? We’re about to find out.

Though the two streaming services may have dominated the start of Sundance, all is not lost for traditional distributors. While some major film studios may have lost bids to Netflix and Amazon in some cases, The New York Times reports that they’re not necessarily being sidelined — they’re being choosy. With smaller films today having an increasingly difficult time selling tickets, non-digital distributors are being more selective, carefully trying to gauge which movies have the most breakout potential and are worth putting down a huge chunk of change for.

In any case, it’s safe to say this year’s Sundance saw a huge digital upheaval. Whether Amazon and Netflix’s aggressive buying strategy will pay off in the long run remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the two are only just getting started when it comes to pushing new boundaries in film.

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