Apple Spends Big at Sundance, Helping Indie Film Market Thrive

The Sundance Film Festival, battered by a virus that halted movie productions and prevented its stars and deep-pocketed buyers from gathering in person, thrived anyway.

Apple Inc., Netflix Inc. and other buyers threw cash at independent films as they jostled for movies they thought could bolster their streaming platforms. Apple spent $25 million for “Coda,” a drama about a woman with a deaf family, in a sale that smashed the previous record for biggest deal in Sundance’s history by more than $7 million.

In the end, the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic included a silver lining. Because producing new content has been so daunting during a pandemic, those who have successfully created high-quality films can be richly rewarded. Further, a proliferation of new streaming services means there are more buyers than ever. And even traditional studios are again building their libraries in anticipation of the reopening of movie theaters.

“It felt like the movie business returned,” said David Linde, a Hollywood veteran who is now chief executive officer of Participant and has attended the festival for about 30 years. “I really think that Sundance was a moment that represents how resilient we are and how innovative people can be at finding ways to sustain a business.”

Linde’s Participant paired up with independent film company Neon to purchase “Flee,” an animated refugee drama, over the weekend. The deal-making was done over the phone, with Linde overseeing negotiations from his house in Venice, California. He said he had to keep reminding himself that the people on the other end of the line weren’t in Park City, Utah, the festival’s normal location, but also in their own living rooms.

There was no certainty that deal-making during a pandemic was going to be a success, according to Bryn Mooser, who runs the documentary studio XTR and the new streaming platform Documentary+.

Normally for him, Sundance is packed with parties, dinners, screenings and huddled meetings with his team. Films that are for sale generate buzz because viewing them is a communal experience, with audiences often sticking around after screenings for Q&As with the filmmakers and breaking out into applause, or even boos.

‘A Big Year’

This year Mooser set up a projector in his backyard in his Los Angeles home so he could host a socially distanced viewing party with friends and colleagues. He entered Sundance as both a buyer and a seller, with eight of the films XTR helped produced premiering and his brand-new streaming service scoping out new content.

Mooser said Thursday that he’s in active negotiations over four films.

“From a sales perspective, it was a big year and that was driven by a need for great content -- mostly due to the pandemic disruption, as well as the industry wanting to show up and support Sundance and its filmmakers,” he said.

The total number of Sundance-spawned deals isn’t as high as last year -- so far, at least -- but that’s partly due to a smaller lineup. The festival included about 60% of its normal 120 feature films because of the pandemic.

In 2020, about 20 films sold, not including those that were purchased before they premiered at the festival, according to tabulations by Hollywood trade publications. This year, about 10 sales have been announced, but more deals will be hammered out in the coming days. Linde said he was in the thick of negotiating over a second movie during an interview Wednesday.

Ross Putman, a film agent at Verve Talent & Literary Agency, said the festival may have actually benefited from its virtual nature. The online Sundance platform allowed potential buyers to watch more films on a leisurely schedule, as if they were using Netflix. And because fewer movies were made overall in 2020, there was a thinner crowd for new filmmakers and lesser-known actors to compete in.

“Bottom line, my feeling is Sundance pulled this off,” he said. “I’ve heard nothing but positive reaction to the festival, and the fact that things are selling shows people are watching movies at home, and buyers want to get more movies into the home.”

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