Second-Hand Sundance: Streaming Services Spend Big and Other Stories

The Sundance Film Festival is the largest independent film festival in the United States, and every year near the end of January, thousands descend upon Utah to watch the latest offerings of independent filmmakers from all over the world. Indie darlings like Little Miss Sunshine often debut at the festival, and there is always at least one hot ticket that leaves everyone scrambling. Many of the filmmakers are seeking distribution, so beneath the surface of the program itself there is a lot of wheeling-and-dealing. This year was no exception, but the denizens of the Sundance bargaining tables looked a little different this time around. Indie studios like A24 and Fox Searchlight were still there, but the big players were Amazon Studios and Netflix, with each of the streaming services purchasing rights to five films!

The movie world will feel the wake of this spending spree. Both Amazon Studios and Netflix are making a calculated push into acquiring exclusive streaming rights to various films, and in some cases even plan to exhibit these films in theaters. The power of streaming is the ability of these services to provide content directly to viewers without the need for movie theaters, though. Predictably, this has ruffled the feathers of the established, larger studios in Hollywood. Still, as most of these purchases are relegated to small films and documentaries, there isn’t likely to be any direct blowback. Now, if one of the films purchased by the streamers at Sundance turns out to be this year’s Brooklyn (which played at Sundance last year) and receives massive critical acclaim and even awards season momentum, we may start to see the establishment try to prevent such spending splurges in the future.

Amazon Studios

We’ll start with Amazon Studios, which purchased the films: Weiner-Dog, Manchester by the Sea, Complete Unknown, Love & Friendship, and Author: The JT LeRoy Story. There’s quite a variety here, so we’ll look at each of the films one-by-one.

Weiner-Dog chronicles the effects that a dog has on a collection of characters as the dog traverses the country. It looks like a genuinely quirky comedy and has been fairly well received by those who saw it at Sundance. I have no idea if the dog dies at the end, so don’t ask. Hopefully not, though.

Complete Unknown is a drama starring Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon as Alice and Tom. At a dinner party hosted by Tom and his wife, Alice shows up on the arm of another man – but Tom swears that he knows her from earlier in his life. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game with Tom trying to tease out who Alice is and why she is lying about it. It seems peculiar, but I find myself at least partially interested in how it all plays out.

Love & Friendship is based on the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan and stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. It is a period piece set in the 1790s, which really isn’t my favorite genre, but the talent assembled could make this a fine film. For what it is worth, the critics have loved this film, with all 18 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes grading as “positive”, with the average overall rating being 8.1/10.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story is a documentary about a literary persona invented by the author Laura Albert. It promises to be an interesting look into the mind of a writer, and likely will tell a peculiar story, but if you’re not a fan of documentaries, you may want to skip it. The buzz has it pegged as pretty weird, though, so I am keeping my eyes open for this one.

But, without a doubt, the Amazon Studios purchase which excites me the most is Manchester by the Sea. This film topped a lot of critics’ “Best of Sundance” lists on the strength of Casey Affleck’s performance as a brooding uncle who becomes the legal guardian of his nephew. Michelle Williams also stars in the film, which was directed by Kenneth Lonergan (mostly known as a screenwriter for such films as Analyze This, Analyze That, and Gangs of New York). Casey Affleck has always impressed me with his acting, and he is a big reason why films like Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford were so good. Here’s to hoping this film follows in a similar vein.

Netflix

Netflix also purchased the rights to five films: Tallulah, Fundamentals of Caring, Under the Shadow, Audrie & Daisy, and Brahman Naman. These are mostly the particular flavor of indie drama that usually comes out of Sundance, but we also have a couple of foreign genre flicks (one horror, one raunchy comedy). We’ll start with the lighter fare because I am writing the post.

Brahman Naman is an Indian teen sex-comedy a la American Pie. It follows the exploits of a quiz team of Brahmin nerds as they attempt to lose their virginities in amid alcohol-inspired boasting and fantasies. There’s reportedly some thinly-veiled class system critique and debauchery that has angered the censors in India, but the critical consensus seems to be that the film is a little thin in terms of thematic material.

Staying with the foreign flicks, Netflix also purchased the rights to Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film set amid a war-torn Tehran post the revolution. The story focuses on a mother and daughter during these repressive times (especially for women), and has a decidedly supernatural bent. Hearing accounts of this film reminds me of when I first heard about The Babadook, and others have made that comparison already (which is a very good sign). I also love films set in Iran around this time (see: Argo and Persepolis). For fans of nuanced horror, this will likely be something to keep on your radar.

The final three films bought by Netflix are all dramas of varying seriousness. Audrie & Daisy deals with the sexual assault of two teenage girls and the tragic social media repercussions when the eponymous characters talk about the assaults. It seems ripped from the headlines, so it will likely be an important film. But I would wager quite a lot of money on it being difficult to watch (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

Tallulah reunites an old Sundance pairing in Ellen Page and Allison Janney (the two were in Juno). This film tells the story of a young woman (Page) who is hired to babysit for an irresponsible mother. Perceiving the mother to be neglectful, the girl pretends the child is her own and tries to raise it with the help of her ex-boyfriend’s mother (Janney). This film is supposed to have a lighter tone, but I doubt it will equal the magic of Juno.

And finally, The Fundamentals of Caring stars Paul Rudd, Selena Gomez, Craig Roberts, and Megan Ferguson. It is based on the novel of the same name (by Jonathan Evison) and tells the story of a man named Ben (Rudd) who decides to become a caregiver after a tragedy leave him emotionally crippled. His first client is Trevor, an 18-year old with muscular dystrophy. A road trip buddy comedy commences from here.

Other Films

Other studios bought films too, obviously. I won’t go into everything, but would like to mention a couple of stories. The film that left the festival with the most hype is undoubtedly Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The film sold to Fox Searchlight for a Sundance record of $17.5M, and Netflix reportedly offered $20M, but Parker wanted a full theatrical release for his film. Film fans will recognize the title from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic, and it is clear that Parker has chosen the title of his film with Griffith’s racist, anti-Reconstruction film in mind. Parker’s film also deals with racial themes, dramatizing the slave revolt of Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831. Parker also wrote the film and stars as Nat Turner, so this is certainly a tour-de-force for him. Critics have likened the film to 12 Years a Slave, and many remark that Parker has revealed an impressive level of talent for such a new filmmaker. This is definitely one to keep your eyes on.

I am an unabashed A24 fanboy, so I was please to see the studio purchase the rights to Swiss Army Man, the movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a corpse that washes up on the shore of an island where Paul Dano is marooned. I first heard of this movie from Radcliffe’s Nerdist episode, and it definitely seems weird and interesting at the very least. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the latest film from Taika Waititi, director of What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok, and tells the story of a young boy and his uncle (Sam Neill) wandering through the New Zealand bush. And finally, Goat promises to be a challenging look at fraternity hazing and sexual assault, so while it clearly won’t be for everyone, folk who like their movies a little dark and brutal will find something here.

That’s about it from me. It was fun listening to reviews and accounts of the film festival over the last month or so. As the film festival season continues, keep an eye on how aggressively the streaming services are purchasing films at Cannes or TIFF or Telluride. We may remember Sundance 2016 as the beginning of streaming services becoming gigantic players in the realm of cinema, and from my seat, I do not see this trend abating.

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