The Brisk Business of Sundance 2016: Let It Snow, Show Me The Money

by HFPA January 27, 2016

Park City's Egyptian Thetaer under a snowstorm, January 2016.

HFPA/Scott Orlin

It did snow on Sundance goers, but compared to those on the East Coast who bore the brunt of storm Jonas, Park City, Utah residents and guests braved a rather mild weather weekend. It wouldn’t be snow that would eventually blanket the 2016 Sundance Film Festival this year. It would be cash!

Fox Searchlight announced they paid a record $17.5 million for worldwide distribution rights to The Birth Of A Nation. Written, directed and starring Nate Parker, the pre-Civil War story set on a plantation in rural Virginia broke the bank so to speak in terms of studio deals done at this festival over the years. This comes just days after Amazon paid $10 million for Kenneth Lonergan’s family drama Manchester By The Sea starring Casey Affleck while its streaming cousin Netflix shelled over $5 million for the Ellen Page starrer Tallulah and $7 million for The Fundamentals Of Caring.

Anxious studios in search of new product certainly hope they can find another

Blair Witch Project, which sold for $1.1 million and grossed more then $248 million around the world. Historically the festival has delivered many a noteworthy finds; Little Miss Sunshine ($10.5 million), Napoleon Dynamite ($3 million), Precious ($5.5 million) and The Kids Are Alright ($4.8 million), to name a few; most of which achieved not only commercial success but awards recognition as well.

But big bucks don’t always equate to commercial success. Me Earl And The Dying Girl set Fox Searchlight back $12 million in 2015 but only delivered a $9.1 million box office and Happy Texas (1999), which Miramax paid more than $10 million for, only saw a little more then $2.5 in box office returns. Other purchases don’t garner huge financial windfalls but do gain industry acclaim, that’s been the case with last year’s Sundance find, Brooklyn, purchase for $9 million by Fox Searchlight who are now sitting on an Oscar nominated Best Picture. The Irish drama adds its Academy Award pedigree to such Sundance alumni as The Usual Suspects, Boyhood, Boys Don’t Cry, Affliction, Gods And Monsters and El Norte.

Scott Orlin