The phrase “Sundance hit” or “Sundance sensation” gets thrown around when a movie debuts in Park City and wins acclaim from an extremely unrepresentative crowd of industry insiders, professional film critics, and super fans. The buzz, often based on a single screening, then inspires an immediate bidding war that drives up prices to $10 million or more, and with that commitment comes an additional vow to spend lots of money on distribution.
How is this gang’s track record? Here’s how much the following “Sundance hits” sold for, and how much they earned back.
Mudbound, $12.5 million (Netflix)
Box office gross: Negligible (Netflix gives its prestige movies only a token run in a few theaters and doesn’t report grosses)
The Big Sick, $12 million (Amazon)
Box office gross: $43 million domestic
Patti Cake$, $9.5 million (Fox Searchlight)
Box office gross: $800,000.
Assassination Nation $10 million (Neon, ABGO)
Box office gross: $2 million.
Late Night, $13 million (Amazon)
Box office gross: $15 million
The Report, $14 million (Amazon)
Box office gross: negligible (two week run in a few theaters began November 15 ahead of streaming debut November 29)
Brittany Runs a Marathon, $14 million (Amazon)
Box office: $7 million
Blinded by the Light, $15 million (New Line)
Box office: $12 million.
All of these films lost a ton of money except The Big Sick, which appears to have lost . . . a little money. Movie studios pocket half of the box office but spend big on promotion. Richard Rushfield, who writes the popular and witty The Ankler film-news blog, and can be brutally honest because he doesn’t rely on film studios for advertising, pegged the promotional (P&A) spending on Late Night at $35 million. The Big Sick probably cost about the same. That’s a lot to splash out just to give your Amazon Prime Video subscribers an exclusive title.
This year indie cinema pretty much got wiped out. But there was one film that far outperformed expectations: The Peanut Butter Falcon, the charming Huckleberry Finn-like tale of two modern misfits on the run in the Outer Banks, one played by Shia LaBeouf, the other by Zack Gottsagen, an actor who has Down Syndrome. It sold not at Sundance but at the less prestigious South by Southwest film festival, for a sum so low the trades didn’t even report the number. (Typically this means a sales price of less than $1 million). After a late-summer release it has earned $21 million and proven a crowd-pleaser outside the big coastal metro areas. David French called it “a film with a conservative soul [that] teaches three great truths of manhood,” and I praised it for showing some real understanding that the capabilities of people with Down Syndrome far exceed what some would imagine.
Oh, and another inspirational title, Overcomer, from the Christian outfit Affirm Films, earned a tidy $35 million. These two, along with 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, from Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, which earned $22 million, were the leaders of the pack at the indie box office this year. Looks like the experts at Sundance have a hard time guessing what audiences will actually show up for.