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The film industry is still trying to figure out the acquisition and distribution approaches of relative newcomer streaming services like Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and more. In years past, these companies have arrived at annual film festivals like Sundance and even Cannes with their pocketbooks in hand, looking to make a splash by picking up eventual awards contenders. Movies like Mudbound and Manchester By The Sea were the end result. This year, however, those types of acquisitions were non-existent at Sundance, and now we're learning it's because strategies at those companies are changing, drastically.
Take the data from two years ago. According to Business Insider, both Amazon and Netflix left Sundance 2016 with six new titles on their slate. In 2017, Netflix purchased the rights to 10 titles, including Mudbound (acquired for $12.5M), while Amazon picked up five movies (including The Big Sick). The efforts have paid off as both movies are well-represented at the Academy Awards this year, contending with major studios. But this year, neither company purchased a movie because, according to sources who spoke with BI, buying indies is not part of their shot-term strategy.
The reasons are varied. One source mentioned that Netflix isn't prone to drop money on a title that it can pick up later as part of the library deals it has in place with studios. This makes sense. If Netflix has a deal in place with Fox, and Fox Searchlight grabs a hot Sundance title, it likely will show on Netflix by year's end, anyway. Another source told Business Insider that the streaming giants are becoming more focused on A-list talent fronting blue-chip IP projects, like Will Smith starring in Bright, or Amazon investing in a Lord of the Rings series.
But Netflix reportedly headed to Sundance with a tight grip on its wallet because its film slate already was full. And Amazon says that they are not giving up on the film-festival market at all (despite not having acquired any films at Sundance), explaining in a statement given to BI:
We are not abandoning the indie space, we are increasing the potential size of the audience for our films; that in some cases involves higher budgets, but in others not. It's about the potential for the film not the cost. Our roots are in independent/prestige film and we intend to continue in that space using it as a springboard to expansion and scale.
Both studios were in the market for films at Sundance, but neither pulled the trigger on a deal. This could speak to the quality of films that were available there (here are the 10 that left the fest with the loudest buzz), but it could also signify a shift in the way that the streaming giants approach acquisition.
Either way, companies like Netflix and Amazon aren't hurting for content, and both are developing original movies and television shows on a regular basis. We will have to wait longer to see if Sundance 2018 was a one-off anomaly, or the sign of the times for the fest and these distributors.