Has Sundance Become a Film Festival for Streaming Services?

In another era, traditional movie studios would have exhaustively battled to buy a Sundance Film Festival crowd-pleaser like “Cha Cha Real Smooth” in the hopes of turning critical raves into the next theatrical hit.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth,” writer-director Cooper Raiff’s charming story about a budding friendship between an aimless college grad and a young mother, seemed tailor-made to charm the snow boots off Sundance buyers — and it did. Apple TV Plus outbid competitors and bought the movie for $15 million, the biggest sale at this year’s festival. But unlike perennial Sundance favorite “Little Miss Sunshine,” Kumail Nanjiani’s unconventional rom-com “The Big Sick,” the Mister Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and other indie darlings that came before it, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” wasn’t sold to a conventional movie studio and therefore won’t require box office dollars to justify its price tag. If the film plays in theaters at all, Apple likely will not even report ticket sales.

The reality that Sundance has become a playground for streamers, many of whom have content libraries to fill and cash to burn, isn’t exactly new. But the trend has become increasingly noticeable during the pandemic, which shook up the movie theater business and perhaps permanently shifted audience’s already changing tastes. Sundance, the premier destination for independently produced movies, isn’t programming the kind of films that people want to see in theaters, leaving streaming services to pounce on Park City’s best deals.

That doesn’t mean smaller companies, like IFC Films, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features and Searchlight, haven’t been active buyers; the Bill Nighy-led adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s “Living,” Rebecca Hall’s thriller “Resurrection,” the quirky comedy “Brian and Charles” and “Alice” starring Keke Palmer were nabbed by traditional buyers with the intention of playing in theaters. But a number of sales titles will land directly on digital platforms or, at least, already have a hybrid release plan. That’s the case with Emma Thompson’s sex-positive comedy “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” (which sold to Searchlight and Hulu), the Dakota Johnson delayed coming-of-age story “Am I OK?” (Warner Bros. and HBO Max), and a queasy modern-love story, “Fresh” (Searchlight). On the documentary front, “We Need to Talk About Cosby” (Showtime) “The Janes,” (HBO), “Lucy and Desi” (Amazon Prime Video), and “Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” (Netflix), came into the festival armed with distribution on streaming platforms such as HBO, Netflix and Amazon. As recently as 2018, non-fiction films like “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “RBG” and “Three Identical Strangers” managed to become surprise box office hits. Today, even star-studded, IP-driven tentpole films aren’t reliable theatrical draws.

Given the current movie theater landscape, which has been downright unfavorable to anything that’s not superhero-related, it’s probably responsible to orchestrate a streaming backstop. Traditional studios do not want to embark on spending sprees only to have a festival movie flop at the box office, and streamers like Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV Plus and HBO Max have been more interested in expanding their online arsenal than nabbing the next box office blockbuster. For companies that don’t have pockets as deep as Amazon and Apple, and even those that do, why not mitigate the risk that comes with bidding wars and dangerously steep price tags?

Sundance buyers seem to be coming to terms with the fact that audiences may be less eager to go to the cinema for “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” “Am I OK?” and “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” after growing accustomed to watching sweeter, slice-of-life movies at home. Even before COVID-19 rattled moviegoing habits, these companies have been burned in the past. Despite overwhelmingly favorable reviews, semi-recent Sundance breakouts like “Late Night,” “Blinded By the Light” and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” fell flat at the box office, losing their respective distributors millions of dollars.

It’s been two years since Hollywood has been able to witness the way Sundance winners have fared on the big screen. In winter 2020, the last year the festival took place in person in Park City, Neon and Hulu shelled out a then-record $17.5 million for “Palm Springs,” a cerebral romantic comedy starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. But the pandemic took hold before the movie opened in theaters and it ultimately landed directly on the streamer. Then in 2021, Apple paid a historic $25 million for “CODA,” writer-director Sian Heder’s touching melodrama about a teenager who is the only hearing member of her family. It didn’t get a considerable theatrical rollout when it debuted last August, but “CODA” has managed to stay in the awards conversation and looks to find itself in this year’s Oscar race. In the case of Sundance’s hottest titles, potential box office dollars are no longer the main attraction.