news The Biggest Buys at Sundance Revealed How Distributors View the Future of Film

In today’s streaming-first landscape, every acquisitions deal demanded an answer to the same question: How will your movie cut through the noise for audiences faced with an endless number of all-you-can-eat content buffets?

From Netflix and Apple to IFC Films and Sony Pictures Classics, each of the 19 acquisitions out of the festival revealed much about how distributors will chart their paths in an industry that’s never felt more upside down. Here’s a look at how some of the biggest deals out of Sundance illuminate the murky path in the future of entertainment.

Apple looks for love with “Cha Cha Real Smooth”​

Apple has long fancied itself as the socially responsible, creative face of consumerism. With nearly $200 billion in cash on hand, opportunistic festival acquisitions have become a favorite way to show it. This year, it was Cooper Raiff’s sophomore feature “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” The $15 million acquisition was the festival’s largest, a price elevated by a bidding war between streamers and theatrical distributors who couldn’t resist Raiff’s filmmaking- and on-screen charms.

For Apple, the feel-good film was refined without losing the soul that made the 24-year-old Raiff a rising star (his first film, “Shithouse,” was a major winner at SXSW 2020). It also took the Audience Award, receiving a Sundance seal of approval also achieved by its 2021 Sundance buy “CODA” ($25 million; Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, Special Jury award, Best Director award) and 2020 purchase “Boys State” ($12 million, Grand Jury Prize).

In the early days of Apple TV+, many in the industry were smug that the tech outsider had “no idea what they’re doing.” Two years on, Apple execs deserve credit for predicting which films will win big and paying any amount necessary to acquire them. Apple wants beloved content and the trophies that quantify it. If you ask Cook anything about Apple TV+, as several analysts did on Thursday’s quarterly earnings call, he’s not going to focus on subscriber numbers; he’ll offer answers that prove Apple’s movies and shows have earned their place in the culture and become as vital to its customers as their iPhones.

“In its first two years, Apple TV+ shows and movies have earned 200 award wins and more than 890 nominations,” he said. “Among the powerful lineup are feature films like ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ ‘CODA,’ and ‘Swan Song.’ Each one is a tremendous credit to all the storytellers in front of the cameras and behind them who touched audiences all over the world.”

An evolving AMC Networks reigns supreme​

All in, AMC Networks-owned distributors have six Sundance films, besting everyone else — even Disney, whose tentacles brought or bought four movies. IFC continued the festival run of “Happening” after acquiring it out of Venice last year, while IFC Midnight launched “Hatching” to the festival ahead of its day-and-date April 29. RLJE picked up “Dual” after its Sundance premiere.

IFC capped the festival with two acquisitions with new distribution-plan twists. The buzzy, genre-bending, Rebecca Hall-starrer “Resurrection” will get a theatrical and VOD release from the distributor, and Shudder will take the first streaming window. IFC Midnight buy “Watcher” will see a similar release strategy.

“I always use the target mentality: There’s the core of the bullseye, but those other rings are what make something even more successful,” said Scott Shooman, who joined IFC as senior VP acquisitions earlier this month. Among his duties is liasing between the sister companies.

“Between our audience at IFC Midnight and Shudder, we can bring these smart genre films to even more viewers — and when you layer in the experience and prestige of IFC across all genres, it can be positioned as something even more complex,” he said after the “Resurrection” acquisition. “From a positioning and market standpoint, I think you see the company’s desire to have lots of different types of movies. You’re starting to see the cross-section from the [six] movies we collectively had at the festival — and we’re not done yet.”

Rebecca Hall appears in Resurrection by Andrew Semans, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wyatt Garfield.



Genre distributor RLJE, which AMC acquired in 2018, released Camille Griffin’s “Silent Night” in theaters last December; it also has a streaming home on AMC+. RLJE’s Sundance acquisition of “Dual” has an appealing bonus in star Aaron Paul, known best for his role in AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”

“I know what we like, and I know these interesting and totally original genre movies with cast work with every bucket of ancillary — it’s tried and true,” said Mark Ward, RLJE’s chief acquisitions officer. And he really means every bucket: The company still does healthy business with Walmart DVD sales.

Crafting a bespoke mix of distribution across theatrical, streaming, and TV can give surgical precision to audience reach. It also means specialty distributors must forge partnerships across corporate boundaries to be competitive, as with Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions’ joint pre-Sundance purchase of “Alice.”

IFC Films President Arianna Bocco says tapping in to the collective power of her sister companies helps set IFC apart from its peers.

“I think [‘Resurrection’] is going to really benefit from the partnership that we will create,” she said. “As time goes on, we’re going to really emerge as the one distributor who’s going to have more flexibility in how we release things with more options than I think anybody else in the marketplace on an independent level.”

Disney’s Searchlight and its multi-platform future​

Searchlight, distributor of Oscar winners such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Shape of Water,” bought two movies at Sundance, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” and “Fresh.” Both will head straight to Hulu. Surprising, until you remember last year’s Best Picture winner, “Nomadland.”

“Most people saw [‘Nomadland’] on Hulu, but it was marketed like a traditional movie,” Searchlight co-president Matthew Greenfield said during a Film Independent panel in November.

Searchlight’s embrace of Hulu is more than a pandemic response. On the FIND panel last fall, Greenfield said Searchlight plans to expand its TV production and its straight-to-streaming titles while continuing “the same number of theatrical movies.” (Pre-COVID, that annual slate accounted for about 10 titles.)

The Searchlight boilerplate for the press releases announcing their Sundance acquisitions identified upcoming releases as “the Hulu Original Limited Series ‘The Dropout,’ from Michael Showalter, Mimi Cave’s ‘FRESH’, Tom George’s ‘See How They Run,’ Andrew Ahn’s ‘Fire Island,’ Mark Mylod’s ‘The Menu,’ Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Banshees of Inisherin,‘ and Sam Mendes’ ‘Empire of Light.’” Of those, Searchlight announced last summer that “See How They Run” would receive a wide theatrical release; “Fresh” and “Fire Island” are Hulu releases.

For Sony Pictures Classics, it’s still theatrical-first​

Distributors from Netflix to Gravitas Ventures see theatrical releases as a way to position their films as something special, but no company is more bullish than Sony Pictures Classics. With its Sundance 2022 buy of Oliver Hermanus’ “Living,” it became one of the few companies at the festival to view theaters as an end unto themselves, with other platforms as downstream ancillaries.

Bill Nighy appears in Living by Oliver Hermanus, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Number 9 Films/Ross Ferguson.



“Not only the aesthetic quality of the film, but it’s an audience picture,” said SPC co-president Michael Barker in an interview. “I think audiences are going to embrace it in a major, major way. I think that was a priority in our minds as we head toward the end of the year and people come back to the movie theater.”

SPC does think outside the four walls of cinemas. Starting this year, all Sony theatrical releases — including SPC’s — will head to Netflix after they leave theaters and have been released on DVD. Some of its recent releases, including “The Father,” saw PVOD releases after expanding in theaters. However, Barker emphasized that theatrical remains primary.

“Theatrical is the most important for us and as we get closer to the opening on ‘Living’ or any of these other films that we have in the last half of 2022, we will adapt to whatever that situation is, but we firmly believe that theaters are going to be in a good place and audiences are going to be coming back in the last half of 2022 and we’re really looking forward to it,” he said. “These films that we have for the fall are going to be embraced by audiences in movie theaters as the base, as the initial release.”