The 2023 Sundance Film Festival wrapped up in Park City, Utah this weekend. It’s the first time that one of the film industry’s biggest annual festival’s has been held in person since 2020. While there was lots of chatter about the current woeful state of “specialty films” going into the festival this year, the big questions on everyone’s mind was what would a post-pandemic Sundance be like, would anyone show up and will distributors acquire any of the more than 100 movies in the official selection?
Of course that latter question is asked before every Sundance, but this year, with streamers openly trimming their budgets and a good chunk of the programming having already been picked up by the likes of A24, Apple, Focus Features and Searchlight, there was a great deal of uncertainty around the market aspect of the festival. Thankfully, everyone’s concern was for naught since buyers did indeed show up with their checkbooks and acquired quite a few of the festival’s best titles.
We’ll be providing an update on some of the sales coming out of this year’s Sundance in an upcoming post, but just know that there were some big money sales. Nothing as big as when Apple paid USD $25 million for “CODA” in 2021, but the tech company turned film distributor was back this year ponying up a reported USD $20 million for “Flora and Son,” the latest musical film from John Carney whose earlier movie, “Once,” was a hit. Nor could Netflix let the festival go by without making at least one headline. They managed to do that by beating out seven other distributors to pay USD $20 million for the rights to “Fair Play,” an erotic psychological thriller set int he world of high finance. Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, MUBI, Magnolia and others also left the festival having picked up various titles.
The major question that hung over Sundance as it unspooled over 11 days was if any of the films being acquired would actually get a theatrical release, or instead, head straight to streaming? And of those that got a theatrical release, would anyone show up in cinemas to watch them. The main conversations after a Sundance screening ends used to be centered around whether the film was any good or not. Now, whether anyone will actually pay to see the film in a movie theatre has been added to the discussion.
“Rye Lane” managed to exemplify the conundrum. A British romantic comedy directed by Raine Allen-Miller, the movie about two two twentysomethings trying to get over recent relationships is funny, stylish and was very well received during Sundance. It came into the festival with Searchlight as its distributor and it was soon revealed that, while “Rye Lane” will get a theatrical release in the United Kingdom, it will stream on Hulu in the United States. That’s a shame because the consensus among festival goers was that it could be a big word of mouth hit in which its third and fourth week’s box office outpace the movie’s first two weeks.
Sundance ended as it does every year, without really answering the question of who will actually show up at cinemas to see some of its official selections. This year it just seems to be more of an existential question than in previous years. Especially given the lower attendance at this year’s festival. Depending on who you asked, Sundance was either back in full swing with its normal attendance (as noted by those spending most of their time trying to get into parties on Main Street) or was suffering from depressed attendance (as noted by those attending press and industry screenings). The reality is somewhere in the middle, there were fewer people in Park City for Sundance, making it way more pleasant to navigate logistically, but public screenings were sold out and there were enough parties to keep social butterflies happy.
The mistake I saw many industry attendees make was connoting a smaller Sundance attendance with a lack of interest in arthouse films, adult themed movies, etc. Given the expense of attending the festival in its small ski-town setting, the lower budgets many media companies are enforcing and the fact that most of the titles in the official selection could be screened at home made it impossible to determine the true attendance and participation in this year’s Sundance.
Rather than look for the flaws it would be more productive to point out that, once again, Sundance managed to curate some of the best independent movies we’ll see this year from interesting filmmakers, some of whose names we’ll only get to know in the coming years. Sundance somehow manages to do that consistently. Was every movie great? No. But it never is at any festival. Will every movie get a theatrical release? Sadly, probably not. But hopefully the industry will rally around the ones that make it onto cinema screens to help assure their financial success, thus ensuring more will get made in the future.
By the way, as they are with us, Dolby is a huge sponsor of Sundance and plays an integral role in making sure all the screenings sound perfect.
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