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Sundance Film Festival: Will Strike Hangover and New In-Person Rules Heat Up the Sales Market?

Not even Gwyneth Paltrow’s ski instructor could predict the terrain on the slopes of Park City, Utah — and so it goes for the crop of independent movies seeking splashy distribution deals at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Buzzy titles with notable names — Kristen Stewart, Pedro Pascal, Kieran Culkin and Steven Yeun are just a few of the stars popping up in festival movies — will vie for release slots from major studios and streamers. But the evergreen questions remain: Which films will win over audiences on the ground, and how much cash are distributors willing to cough up for these crowd-pleasers?

There are indicators that this year is shaping up to be a seller’s market, according to more than half a dozen sales agents and industry players who spoke with Variety. The first sign is a key victory agents and filmmakers claimed when they convinced Sundance to overhaul its virtual program.

Since the onset of COVID-19, Sundance has offered digital screenings in addition to in-person premieres. It was a necessity while the world was engulfed in a health crisis. But it also allowed buyers to watch films from the comfort of their homes and offices instead of making the trek up the mountain. Yet these movies rely on euphoric responses from packed houses to excite the market and stir up bidding wars.

For 2024, digital screenings will be offered only in the final five days of the festival, starting Jan. 24 — long after many top players typically hightail it out of Utah.

“We pushed back on this and they listened,” one top indie film broker says. “You’ve got to be in Park City if you want to be in the conversation to acquire our product.”

There’s also a good chance that the massive work stoppages caused by the 2023 Hollywood labor strikes could turbocharge the Sundance market. As writers and actors battled for better contracts, productions were shuttered — which means the larger studios and smaller distribution labels with output deals need finished films if they are going to have enough to license to cable channels and streaming services.

“There is a feeling of hunger,” says another dealmaker, “especially for the back half of 2024. We’re curious if some buyers will each walk away with multiple titles.”

They’ll have their pick. Feature narratives include David Schwimmer’s “Little Death,” about a Hollywood screenwriter in the thick of a midlife crisis; Stewart and Yeun’s high-concept “Love Me,” about a buoy and a satellite (yup!) who meet under unusual circumstances; and “Ponyboi,” a New Jersey Mafia drama that centers on an intersex sex worker.

Sellers are also excited that tech giants like Apple and Amazon have started to release more films theatrically as a way to raise the profile of their streaming services. “It used to be this binary,” says one film executive, “where the movie would be a massive event or just upload to streaming and disappear. We’re seeing a middle ground emerge.”

The exec points to films such as “Priscilla” and last year’s Sundance acquisition “Theater Camp” as examples of “more nuanced release patterns.” The exec also highlighted new corporate structures like the one at Amazon — where films can now live solely on Prime Video or receive robust theatrical marketing campaigns from MGM, the legendary studio that the e-commerce company bought in 2022.

Mark Ankner, a former partner at Endeavor Content and producer of “Ponyboi,” is confident the marketplace will thrive amid media megamergers and declining box office receipts.

“We’ve had periods of consolidation and refocus before, ones that brought forth companies like A24 and Neon. I think this is a period where we’re shattering conventional wisdom,” Ankner says. “Independent film is always going to be essential to the heartbeat of Hollywood — whether it’s streamers or traditional theatrical distributors. Indie films shape the cultural conversation.”

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