The corporate film business is plagued with bruises – the decrease in attendance, the lack of bankable brands and competition for new forms of entertainment.
Do not tell people who are heading to the Sundance Film Festival.
The meeting of the Utah film decidedly more independent – and the market to which it anchors – has been booming lately. Driven by content-hungry digital players, Sundance last year saw selling three movies in the $ 10 million neighborhood, which is believed to be a modern record. At least five others sold for more than $ 5 million.
"These are the good times, enjoy the good times, have fun," said Barry Mendel, Judd Apatow's business partner who produced one of last year's mega-sales, "The Big Sick." "Because once the streamers reach their optimal subscriber numbers, prices start to fall ".
When Sundance begins its 2018 edition in Park City on Thursday, the question weighs on the minds of many in the film business: Can the party continue?
And as important as it should be …
The frenzy of prestige-oriented Sundance films comes when distributors look for content to defend themselves against their competitors: it's a microcosm of the trend that has fueled a movement of vault emptied by Amazon to pay more than $ 200 million for a TV license from "The Lord of the Rings" and the acquisition of Disney 21 & # 39; 28 million dollars from the assets of 21st Century Fox. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, owns The Washington Post)
But what many publicly praise – some in Hollywood will once say opposition to the money poured into art – is in private a source of concern. The flow of Sundance dollars has caused fears of a bubble, which could endanger the long-term health of some of the country's major creative players.
"I think more than ever we have to be careful, for our company and for the industry, not to spend excessively," said a senior executive and a regular Sundance buyer who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
After all, the person noticed that some of the biggest purchases last year did not work at the box office.
The Sundance market is an informal but very important event. Some 100 independently funded films, many of which will seek distribution, will be released to the public over the next 10 days in the projection rooms of Park City. Buyers attend these screenings among journalists and fans. Then, for the most popular titles, they rush to the condominiums of sales agents to negotiate prices and negotiate terms, in discussions that can deepen into the night.
The process has produced some of the most talked about successes of the modern era of the film: "Napoleon Dynamite", "Precious", "Little Miss Sunshine", "Children are fine."
It has also generated failures such as "Son of Rambow", "The Spitfire Grill" and "Hamlet 2". , "All of which sold for many millions of dollars in Sundance only to become a late occurrence in a movie trivia game.
The goal for each film professional in the coming days: to avoid becoming a question of trivia.
To do that, they are forming after the recent successes of Sundance.The success of the heavy "Big Sick" in the summer has aroused interest in any comedy with a mixture of seriousness and heart, a list that includes the post-apocalyptic tale "I Think We're Alone Now", the movie "American Animals" and Mendel's last entry, "Juliet, Naked."
Equally interesting are the films about race and identity that they play with the genre, after Jordan Peele's "Fight" became the low-budget sensation of 2017, raising $ 255 million on a budget of less than $ 5 million, although the film was not acquired at Sundance, it had a advance in the festival that began his spectacular career.
Between the films with a potential "to leave", and the ambition of sales, they are the race and the gender – the experiments of thematic histories, like "Blindspotting", "Monsters and Men", "Sorry to Bother You" and "Assassination Nation". Many take risks of some kind – "Sorry to Bother You" merges into magical realism in an alternative Oakland universe in a film directed by rapper-activist Boots Riley, hoping to attract buyers with novelty.
"The great thing about Sundance is that you can have a movie without widely known elements and turn it into a total sales sensation," said Bec Smith, an agent from UTA, who represents "American Animals," among other titles.
But buying outside the festival's hype can be risky.
Just ask Fox Searchlight, who paid $ 17.5 million, a record festival, for Nate Parker the historical drama "The Birth of a Nation" after its successful screening in 2016. The number was driven by Netflix, which offered at least $ 20 million, which took Searchlight out of its usual price range. (The filmmakers preferred Searchlight once it approached the Netflix number because the first covers theatrical distribution, while Netflix does not).
However, Netflix executives breathed a sigh of relief when Parker revealed himself shortly before being released to be subjected to a sexual assault Scandal, torpedoing the movie at the box office.
It was not the only false step in the current boom cycle.
Last year, the $ 12.5 million for "Big Sick" became almost $ 50 million at the box office and a lot of criticism and heat rewards.
That was offset, however, by the approximately $ 10 million paid by Searchlight for the hip-hop playwright "Patti Cake $" and the $ 12 million Netflix disbursed to acquire the historical drama on a racial theme. "Mudbound "Neither of them had a big impact, and now both of them see themselves, at least out of those companies, as excesses of energy. (Because they lack the traditional box office metrics, the performances of Netflix movies can be difficult to assess.)
Whether these moments will be sobering for those companies this year is still a question. Netflix, in particular, with its deep pockets and recent losses from Sundance at the hands of its rival Amazon, two years ago, the Seattle-based company that also acquired the bronze ring, eventually Oscar-winning "Manchester by the Sea", she thinks she is so motivated. as usual.
(The streamer boom not only affects acquisitions, of course: Netflix in particular has funded original film productions, such as Will Smith's recent action action "Bright." But the boom has focused on independent films; Easier to store empty cabinets using a series of quick acquisitions at Sundance that chart the development and production of new films from scratch.)
To protect themselves from costly mistakes in this climate, some companies have taken positions of extreme discipline. Veteran visitor Roadside Attractions, for example, who teamed up with Amazon in "Manchester" in 2016, has stayed out of the big game. Last year, he bought a movie, "Beatriz at Dinner," for an estimated price of less than $ 2 million. He received solid, albeit modest, rewards with $ 7 million in theater receipts.
"We have to adopt a long-term vision," said Howard Cohen, co-director of Roadside. "We can not choose the brightest and compete, we have to find what an audience has and it makes sense for us to buy."
Of course, this has also meant not jumping into the mix for the most enthusiastic title.
Some have tried to surround the monsters of the serpentine in other ways. A24, the studio behind "Moonlight", has searched for films with defined niches, such as the lost hipster-romance "A Ghost Story" and the discreet ultra-orthodox drama "Menashe". The distributor received only about $ 2 million for each movie, but given the low prices, these were considered trumps.
Netflix executives say their goal is not to heat up a market, but simply to secure movies the company believes in.
"We're just another buyer," said head of acquisitions, Matt Brodlie. "There will always be new players, and we hope that, along with others, we will provide more good options for filmmakers."
Also, boosting the market is an influx of independent capital that funds the films in the first place.That usually happens when the stock market is robust and high-income people have small changes.
Some filmmakers say that this type of money, along with large payments of distribution, are not necessarily good for creativity.
"It's great that people can make a living and that they pay them generously to create content," said Jim Hosking, a director who opens his new movie, an unconventional romance entitled "An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn" at the festival hoping to reach an agreement. "But when I look at what is being done with that, I do not know if that it moves a lot. " People who pay a lot of money tend to do what is fairly conservative and derivative. "
Still, the trend is unlikely to diminish until Netflix and Amazon decide they do not need as many new movies. Deeper may have been forged.
Some in the industry quietly point out that a spree of spending has caused a jolt before.
In the mid-2000s, Sundance prices rose thanks to an influx of … called "specialty divisions" of study, new units created by artists such as Paramount and Warner Bros., with DVD funds, scholars created these companies to purchase Sundance films, all had a great time at the festival.  But the boom of the DVD was followed by a collapse, many of the acquisitions turned out to be a failure, and in a few years many of the divisions were closed.
Indus players They said that it is cautiously optimistic that it will not happen again, at least they hope it does not happen again.
"I do not think he has the same problem when he falls," Mendel said. Then he paused, less sure. "You had VHS and DVD, now you have transmission companies, and when that's over, I do not know where the money comes from."
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