With the Sundance Film Festival starting next week, it seems like a good time to look back at last year’s film festival and explore how those Sundance premieres fared out in the real world.
Sundance is an interesting experience, firstly because it’s one of the top 3 market festivals in the world with buyers from most of the major studios (including international distributors) looking for acquisitions. It also draws a huge number of worldwide journalists and critics to get a first look at some of the year’s finest indie fare. Maybe because it’s Sundance’s renowned party setting
We’ll mainly focus on the four categories that feature narrative films, because the documentary market is so bad these days that it’s unlikely a doc will get a proper theatrical release rather than just a qualifying awards run.
US Dramatic Competition
All but four of the Sundance world premieres in competition received distribution and releases in 2017.
There was already some controversy when Netflix premiered two of its films, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore (pictured above) where it won the Grand Jury prize before premiering on the streaming network in February without any significant theatrical release in order to gauge their success. Gerard McMurray’s Burning Sands played Sundance with very little fanfare and dropped on Netflix a few months later without much more.
(Correction from earlier version thanks to “Bryan’: Marti Noxon’s To the Bone also premiered in this competition category but was picked up by Netflix for $8 million and streamed on the network in July.)
IFC Films picked up two movies at Sundance and shortly after with Zoe Lister-Jones’ Band Aid being one of the more popular comedies playing there, but it made less than $250,000. A few months later, IFC picked up Alex and Andrew Smith’s survival thriller Walking Out, starring Matt Bomer and Bill Pullman, but it ended up with only $101,000.
Sony Pictures Classics picked up Kyle Mooney’s comedy Brigsby Bear and Maggie Betts’ Novitiate out of Sundance, and though both movies had their fans among critics, they didn’t get behind the movies when released theatrically and neither has grossed more than $600,000.
The Orchard had a big hit with Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople when they bought it out of Sundance 2016, and this year, they bought Bret Haley’s The Hero, starring Sam Elliot, for $3 million, and it did decently in theaters, grossing $4 million.
Amazon picked up Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre’s Landline, their follow-up to the Sundance fave Obvious Child. It was distributed in North America by Magnolia, but didn’t even crack a million. The studio who had so much success with Manchester by the Sea also picked up Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights, which was released through IFC Films for a total gross of $238,000, making most of its money in New York and L.A.
Possibly the biggest disappointment out of Sundance was Fox Searchlight buying Geremy Jasper’s popular coming-of-age rap drama Patti Cake$ for $10.5 million, but the movie grossed less than a million, as Searchlight didn’t seem to know how to market the popular film despite having done well with eclectic Sundance pick-ups like Napoleon Dynamite and others.
Eliza HIttman’s second feature Beach Rats won an award at Sundance for her direction and fledgling Neon picked it up, as well as Matt Spicer’s popular Ingrid Goes West. The latter made $3 million domestically which isn’t so bad, but Beach Rats never really connected with audiences outside New York and L.A., making less than $500,000.
Golden Exits – Alex Ross Perry’s latest will be released by Vertical Entertainment and Stage 6on Feb. 9.
Roxanne Roxanne – Michael Larnell’s biopic about the legendary female rapper was acquired by fledgling distributor Neon, but there’s been zero word of a release while they release other films picked up from other fests.
The Yellow Birds – Saban Films picked up distribution rights for Alexandre Moors’ Iraq War drama starring future Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan, and it will be released sometime in the spring.
World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Only four films were released domestically from this competition section*, and Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome starring Teresa Palmer stood the best chance at success going by its popularity at Sundance. Vertical Entertainment released the movie to the tune of $28,600 theatrically but it might have fared better On Demand.
Last October Orion released Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, which went on to win Best Film at Berlinale a few weeks after its Sundance premiere as well as sweeping the British Independent Film Awards, but it only grossed $322,000, which actually isn’t bad for the material.
The South-African film The Wound from John Trengrove has been shortlisted in the Oscar foreign language category and was featured in my Under the Radar column, but its low-key release by Kino Lorber only amounted to $30,000 at the box office. Kino Lorber fared better with Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye, which received a screenwriting award at Sundance and grossed $77,400 in theaters.
(*Couple corrections to this section thanks to “Bryan”: The Nile Hilton Incident was released in August by Strand Releasing and grossed $81,000 and I Dream In Another Language was released by FilmRise and grossed $3,000.)
Obviously, foreign films still have a trouble connecting with American audiences outside of film festivals with God’s Own Country being one of the only movies in this section that fared decently.
All but one movie has been released from this category, sometimes seen as the artier and more esoteric section of Sundance, or at least it offers less expensive and also less commercial independent films.
The one movie in this section not released yet was one of the bigger pick-ups from last year’s fest, Cory Finley’s directorial debut Thoroughbreds, starring Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy and the late Anton Yelchin, which Focus Features bought the worldwide rights for $5 million. They’ll be releasing it on March 9, probably limited, and we’ll have to see how word-of-mouth builds from the critical attention it got at Sundance.
A24 already had a distribution deal to release David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, an existential look at death and love that received some of the best critical attention at Sundance. It only opened with $1.6 million despite a strong marketing push by A24, although it only cost $100,000 to make so probably still made money.
A24 also picked up Joshua Z Weinstein’s debut Menashe, an indie starring Hassidic non-actors with most of the dialogue being in Yiddish, making it A24’s first foreign language film. It grossed $1.7 million, which isn’t bad for what it is. Menashe has also been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, following Weinstein’s Gotham Award nomination as Breakthrough Director.
A few months after Sundance,Magnolia Pictures picked up both Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person and Janicza Bravo’s Lemon — both starring Michael Cera, oddly enough — but neither did very well. Lemon has made $29,000 while Person to Person made less than half that amount. No surprise based on the mixed reviews and strong specialty releases that overshadowed them.
Justin Chon’s Gook won the Audience Award in the “Best of Next” category and was released by Samuel Goldwyn Pictures last August to very little fanfare yet it still grossed $250,000.
Kogonada’s directorial debut Columbus received solid reviews and was self-distributed to gross a cool million theatrically, while FilmRise picked up and released Amman Abbasi’s Dayveon in October, and it’s been nominated for two Independent Spirit awards, although it only grossed $2,000. That’s actually kind of a shame because it shows how having big buzz at Sundance doesn’t always translate to commercial success.
Michelle Morgan’s L.A. Times was one of my personal faves of the fest. After changing its title to It Happened in L.A. (as to not get sued by the newspaper?), it was given a low-key release by The Orchard, but didn’t make much of a mark.
Looking over the above, it’s obvious that A Ghost Story and Menashe fared the best, but nothing in this section made more than $2 million when released to theaters, which shows how the esoteric fare in this section is mostly arthouse fare.
This is the category where things get really interesting, because it’s a mix of high-profile premieres for movies that already had distribution, and a few equally high-profile acquisition titles. Only one of the films in this section hasn’t been released yet.
There’s little question that Kumhail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s dramedy The Big Sick, co-starring Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, was the big winner of last year’s Sundance. It was received very well at its Sundance premiere and by critics and was immediately scooped up by Amazon Studios for $12 million. Now, in the past we’ve seen movies picked up for that amount and more that didn’t make its money back, but Amazon was coming off the hit Manchester by the Sea, which was getting lots of attention for Casey Affleck and his castmates Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, as well as Kenneth Lonergan’s script. The movie was released last June through Amazon’s distribution partner Lionsgate, and it has grossed $42.9 million, making it the highest-grossing indie film of 2017, as well as another Sundance success story.
Besides doing well at the box office, The Big Sick has been making its way through awards season with a number of nominations for Holly Hunter, the screenplay and even was picked as “Best Comedy” by the Critics Choice over films like The Disaster Artist, Lady Bird, I, Tonya and Girls Trip.
Then there’s Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, starring breakout star Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg, which Sony Pictures Classics picked up before the movie even premiered at Sundance (probably due to the distributor’s connection with writer James Ivory). The movie is fantastic
Sony Classics held the movie’s release until November and have been slowly rolling it out, although it’s only made $6.5 million so far, and it will need some serious Oscar love to make as much in theaters as some of its awards competition.
Netflix premiered a number of upcoming releases like The Discovery and Rememory at last year’s Sundance*, but they also picked up James Strouse’s The Incredible Jessica James, starring Jessica Williams, and the Jack Black comedy The Polka King, which just started streaming yesterday.
(*Another correction thanks to “Bryan”: Rememory was released by Lionsgate Premiere, and I clearly was confusing it with another film.)
Dee Rees’ Mudbound premiered at Sundance to decent reviews and wisely, Netflix jumped on board, buying it for $12.5 million after Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos watched a screener with Adam Sandler (who has a major deal with the streaming network). Sandler’s enthusiasm helped Sarandos decide to buy Rees’ movie and while it’s not getting much of a theatrical release, Netflix has been giving it a big awards push. Mudbound has received many nominations (mainly for actor Mary J. Blige), although it’s hard to gauge its success without box office being reported. Similarly, Althea Jones’ female-friendly comedy Fun Mom Dinner got picked up by Netflix, and no box office was reported, at least domestically.
Fox Searchlight has had decent success picking movies up at Sundance but not so much with the movies they premiered there like the Woody Harrelson dark comedy Wilson, which played okay for festival audiences but only grossed $654,000 when released in over 300 theaters.
Open Road decided to premiere Ry Russo-Young’s YA adaptation Before I Fall starring Zoey Deutch—kind of like a Groundhog’s Day for teen girls – at Sundance before its release on March 3. It grossed $12.2 million domestically. Similarly, Bleecker Street thought that premiering Mark Pellington’s The Last Word starring at Sundance would help get word out, but it only did slightly better than A Ghost Story. (Honestly, The Last Word wasn’t very good and only right for Sundance due to the older locals that go to premieres.
There was a lot of questions whether the Weinstein Company was still involved with Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut Wind River when it premiered at Sundance, but after the movie played fairly well there, the Weinstein Company decided to release it. It ended up being the company’s biggest hit of last year with $33.8 million before Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault and the Weinstein Company was inevitably put up for sale. Ironically, Sheridan and the producers of Wind River quickly removed their affiliation with Weinstein to handle its own awards campaign.
That leaves us with the other movies that premiered at Sundance and found distribution including Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner, starring Salma Hayek and John Lithgow, a timely dramedy that was picked up by Roadside Attractions and did decently ($7.1 million) in its summer release.
Manifesto featured an amazing multi-role performance by Cate Blanchett, and it was released by FilmRise to the tune of $161,000. FilmRise also released Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, starring Jon Hamm and Lois Smith, which did even worse.
There isn’t much more to say about the other films in this category. IFC Films released Rebel in the Rye to $378,000. I missed that and Andrew Dosmnu’s Where is Kyra? When they played at Sundance, but the latter is being released this coming March. (Note: previous version of the article had that this was released last March, but it hasn’t been released yet.)
Shawn Christensen’s Sidney Hall was picked up by A24 and DirecTV, and its title has been changed to The Vanishing of Sidney Hall with no word on when it might get released.
The Final Sundance 2017 Scorecard
- The Big Sick (Amazon / Lionsgate) – $42.9 million
- Wind River (Weinstein Co.) – $33.8 million
- Before I Fall (Open Road) – $12.2 million
- A Beatriz at Dinner (Roadside Attractions) – $7.1 million
- Ingrid Goes West (Neon) – $3 million*
- The Last Word (Bleecker Street) – $1.8 million
- Menashe (A24) – $1.7 million
- A Ghost Story (A24) – $1.6 million
- Columbus (self-distributed) – $1 million
- Patti Cake$ (Fox Searchlight) – $800,000
- Wilson (Fox Searchlight) – $654,000
- Novitiate (Sony Pictures Classics) -$570,000
(* Accidentally left off the previous chart.)
What we can tell from the above is that only a few movies from Sundance truly break out, although the $42.9 million made by The Big Sick is by no means the highest grosser of Sundance premieres. Other films like Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and Precious all did better than that and the first and third of those were big awards players. And yet, we’ll still hear about studios shelling out $10 million or more for some of this year’s Sundance offerings even though going by the above, it doesn’t seem profitable to spend that amount on every movie that premieres at Sundance.
With that out of the way, it’s now time to look ahead to the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, which will be attended by Tracking Board’s Editor-in-Chief Jeff Sneider, Chief Film Critics Drew McWeeny and myself. Look for our coverage of the fest as it happens between Jan. 16 and Jan. 28.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor