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Sundance returns amid uncertain deal climate

Tim Baysinger
Jan 19, 2023
Illustration of a theater marquee with dollar signs.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Sundance Film Festival returns to Park City for its first in-person festival in three years, yet buyers and sellers are wading through an uncertain market amid recession fears.

Why it matters: Sundance is a dealmaking frenzy for the independent film industry and in recent years had become a key building block for streaming services to fill their libraries.

  • It was also a way for streamers such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple to buy their way into awards contention with films like "Manchester by the Sea," which won two Oscars in 2017 after it was picked up by Amazon, and "CODA," Apple's reigning Best Picture winner.

The big picture: A shaky economy, a hazy outlook for streaming, and the recent struggles of Oscar-contending films at the box office are looming over the event.

  • Oscar favorites like "Tár," "The Banshees of Inisherin" and Steven Spielberg's semi-autobiographical "The Fabelmans," have massively underperformed at the box office.
  • "While there's absolutely a lot of troubling signs in the business, I also think there was a lot of innovation going on," Kent Sanderson, president of acquisitions and ancillary distribution at Bleecker Street, tells Axios.

Flashback: Sundance used to be known for all-night bidding wars between streamers, traditional distributors and major studios hoping to land the next Oscar favorite or surprise box office hit.

  • "Everyone is a very educated buyer right now," says Erik Feig, founder and CEO of PictureStart, a film production and financing company. "They're a sober buyer. They're not a crazy drunken sailor."
  • Last year, Apple bought "CODA" during the virtual Sundance in 2021 for $25 million, a record acquisition for the event.
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