Sundance 2024: How the independent market will fare after the strikes

As movie executives, directors and actors gather this week in Park City, Utah, for the 40th Sundance Film Festival, the big question looms: How much will belt-tight Hollywood be willing to pay this year after two historic strikes? for your favorite indie movies?

This year, buyers will be eager to watch star-studded films including Kristen Stewart and recent Emmy winner Steven Yeun in the futuristic romance “Love Me”; Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin (also an Emmy winner) in the buddy drama «A Real Pain»; Pedro Pascal in the action drama «Freaky Tales»; David Schwimmer in the drama «Little Death»; and Saoirse Ronan in the memoir adaptation «The Outrun.»

It’s hard to predict which films might catch the eye of buyers and leave the festival with a massive offering or become a contender for the Best Picture Oscar.

With enough luck, smart festival shopping can pay off big. Few, if any, expected Sundance 2021 entry «CODA,» which Apple picked up for $25 million, to win the top prize at the Academy Awards the following year. On the other hand, promising films can leave the studio with egg on its face, as when Searchlight Pictures dropped Sundance acquisition «Magazine Dreams» from its release schedule amid legal troubles with actor Jonathan Majors.

The total number of films for the 2024 festival is smaller than last year’s program. Sundance will screen 82 feature films this year, compared to 110 features screened at the 2023 festival, which included buzzy titles like Celine Song’s Past Lives, Chloe Domont and Molly Gordon’s corporate thriller Fair Play, and Nick Lieberman’s comedy Theater Camp».

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Some high profile titles are arriving with distribution already in place, such as “Frida,” a documentary about artist Frida Kahlo that Amazon picked up; “Hit Man,” a true-crime drama starring Glen Powell released on Netflix; and “Love Lies Bleeding,” an A24-released bodybuilding romance that will be Stewart’s second Sundance premiere of the year.

But there’s reason to believe the market could be frothy, according to movie business insiders. Buyers and sellers will enter the independent film market at a time when studios are looking to fill calendar gaps caused by delayed production.

Major milestones originally scheduled for release this year, such as Walt Disney’s «Snow White» remake with Rachel Zegler, Marvel Studios’ «Fantastic Four» and Paramount’s «Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part Two» have been pushed to 2025 .The overall lower output this year gives movie studios more incentive to potentially fill their calendars with Sundance acquisitions.

With the added demand for completed films, there could be a more competitive market at the festival, said CAA Media Finance agent Christine Hsu.

“Buyers are already telling us, ‘We have to look at finished films, we really want to be opportunistic, but the quality has to be there,’ and that’s what creates a great competitive environment where things really emerge. market,» Hsu said.

Another reason traditional studio buyers might be ready to bid more aggressively at Sundance is renewed signs of life at the box office, thanks to surprisingly strong performances from “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” as well as independent releases including “ Sound of Freedom, Focus Features «The Holdovers,» A24’s «Talk to Me» (a 2023 Sundance pick-up) and Searchlight’s «Poor Things.»

Streaming services also need content to meet their release schedules. Netflix and Apple are often active bidders at Sundance, and that’s not expected to change this year, especially as streamers look for better-priced acquisitions or licensing deals to fill libraries.

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“Now, whether it’s a lack of production or they’ve finally looked at how they want to spend their own money, (streamers are) willing to license … again to more different studios, and that’s really helpful for the independent ecosystem. «, said Deborah McIntosh, head of WME Independent.

Even as studios and streamers shorten spreadsheet programming as part of a larger effort cost reductionAn independent route could be considered a more cost-effective way to fill the table. Ben Kramer, CAA’s co-head of media finance, says the independent market can actually benefit as studios and streamers work with tighter budgets.

A studio may be able to spend less money acquiring an independent film for seven to eight figures compared to financing an entire film from start to finish. There’s also the advantage of a faster turnaround, since an indie film is already finished and ready for release at the time it’s purchased—a clear advantage for studios and streamers looking to fill their bet-heavy calendars.

«Even if someone spends $10 million to $20 million on a movie, it takes a lot less modulation than when studios decide if they’re going to pull the trigger on $200 million movies or limited series,» Kramer said.

Ross Fremer, managing director of entertainment management, sales and consulting at Cinetic Media, said he expects distributors to make more rational offers based on what their audiences want, rather than factors such as star power.

«I think buyers are going to be more tactical and (make) purchases based on what they think is going to move the needle for their constituencies,» Fremer said. «This will be a moment where the market really works to match the right movies with the right buyers, and that’s a good thing overall for both sellers and buyers.»

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Whether the festival buzz translates into commercial or critical success is, of course, another matter.

Last year, festival darling «Fair Play» landed a $20 million deal with Netflix after a bidding war that included Neon, Lionsgate and Searchlight Pictures. After landing on the streamer last October, the film struggled to gain steam at awards shows and among audiences. 2022’s breakthrough «Cha Cha Real Smooth» also failed to receive major award nominations despite its $15 million acquisition by Apple.

Much-hyped films heading into the festival do not always maintain momentum. Last year’s highly anticipated films, including «Eileen,» an adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel starring Anne Hathway, and «Cat Person,» based on a viral New Yorker essay with «Succession» star Nicholas Braun and «CODA» Emilia Jones, initially he tried to find a buyer during the festival.

But for every perceived miss, there’s always another year that could bring another «CODA,» «Get Out,» «Call Me By Your Name,» «Hereditary» or «Little Miss Sunshine.» Take an example from last year, the horror film «Talk to Me,» about an embalmed hand that allows people to communicate with the dead, became a box office hit, grossing $92 million worldwide.

«Movies dictate the market,» Kramer said. “Even though everybody’s like, ‘Oh, we don’t have any money, we don’t have any slots that are scheduled for the next few years,’ all of a sudden the slots open up and all of a sudden there’s money to be found. . We’ve seen it over and over and over in the years when everyone was flush (with cash) and the years when everyone said the sky was falling.”

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