The Sundance Film Festival has a long history of bidding wars that often end with distributors paying hefty sums for hot-ticket movies. While some become profitable hits and Oscar candidates, many struggle to make their money back at the box office.
The 2020 edition of the festival, which began Thursday and runs through Feb. 2, might be less of a gold rush for dealmakers, after a number of pricey acquisitions faltered in the past year.
Paying top dollar for a hyped-up festival title raises a movie's profile, to be sure. But on the flip slide, such high-stakes gambles not only raise the financial bar for a movie to turn a profit, but also set unrealistic expectations in the public eye. Various studios have fallen victim to the cruel expectations game.
Last year, for example, saw a rash of high-profile deals from Amazon Studios, which was under the new leadership of studio head Jennifer Salke, looking to show it was still a serious player in the indie film business. Among five high-profile acquisitions, Amazon paid an estimated $14 million for "Brittany Runs a Marathon," which grossed $7.2 million, and $13 million for U.S. rights to release "Late Night," which earned $15.5 million domestically.
Not to be outdone, Warner Bros.' New Line Cinema paid $15 million for "Blinded by the Light," a movie inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen, which also bombed in theaters. And it wasn't alone, with 2019 becoming the first year since 2012 that not a single film from any of Sundance's official sections cleared $20 million at the domestic box office.
"Every year, new people come on the scene to make a name for themselves and to show they have a bankroll," said Tom Bernard, co-founder and co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. "Last year felt like a 'Happy, Texas' year."
In 1999, Harvey and Bob Weinstein's Miramax notoriously won a protracted bidding war for "Happy, Texas," paying what rivals said was more than $10 million. The movie flopped at the box office and became Sundance shorthand for the kind of high-altitude, lightheaded decisions that buyers now studiously try to avoid.
For every runaway success like "Little Miss Sunshine, "Manchester by the Sea" or "The Big Sick," there are many more films that fail to connect with audiences. The feast-or-famine theatrical indie film market has become even more challenging in recent years as studio blockbusters take up more of the box office oxygen.
This year, Bernard said, studios headed to Park City might be more cautious. "Most people are smart enough not to get burned twice," he said.