At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Amazon Studios purchased five films, while Netflix scooped up 10.
Most notable among them was The Big Sick, which Amazon plopped down a historic $12 million for, and Mudbound, which Netflix topped with a $12.5 million check. Both films were met with critical praise and, more importantly, Oscar nominations. The Big Sick is up for Best Original Screenplay, while Mudbound notched four total nods, including Best Supporting Actress for Mary J. Blige.
All things considered, the streaming companies’ busy activity at Sundance has paid off quite well, which makes their complete inactivity at this year’s festival all the more curious.
Amazon was reportedly interested in Laura Dern’s buzzy The Tale but backed out at the last minute and allowed HBO to scoop it up for $7 million, Business Insider reports. Netflix was said to be interested in Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, even making an eight-figure offer, but was outbid by Neon and the Russo Brothers’ AGBO $10 million offer, per Variety.
When all was said and done, neither streamer left Sundance with a property.
“Frankly, I was confused,” Jessica Lacy, ICM Partners agent and head of its film finance division, told THR. “Given the mandate to release 80 films a year on Netflix, and given [Amazon Studios VP] Jason Ropell’s statement that Amazon is definitely still in the independent film space, I found it surprising that they didn’t go after any films in a meaningful way.”
Perhaps we should’ve seen this coming from Amazon.
In September of last year, it was reported that the studio was beefing up its production budget for 2018 and developing three ambitious and expensive sci-fi TV series in an attempt to reach a broader audience.
While Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have been critical hits, Amazon has not yet produced a widespread mainstream must-see series in the vein of Netflix’s Stranger Things or Hulu’s The Handmaid‘s Tale. Internally, the company was planning a strategic shift to elevate itself out of the niche content business.
This was all put in motion by former Amazon Studios head Roy Price, who stepped down due to sexual harassment allegations. Yet CEO Jeff Bezos seems to be continuing that mission, as he’s preparing to make Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings series the most expensive TV show of all time.
It’s not too great of a leap to assume the streamer is applying the same logic to its film division, especially after its professional relationship with Woody Allen has deteriorated in the wake of continued sexual assault allegations against the filmmaker. While we shouldn’t expect Amazon to start dropping Marvel-like blockbusters anytime soon, it’s possible that their focus on independent films may have lessened over the last year.
As for Netflix, the tide began to change this year when it released Will Smith’s $90 million big budget action flick Bright, which was viewed by 11 million people within its first three days and has already received the greenlight for a sequel. Okja, which the studio released over the summer, was a far superior film, but likely didn’t come close to the same amount of viewings.
Elsewhere, the streamer struck a deal with Paramount Pictures for the international rights to Natalie Portman’s upcoming eco-thriller Annihilation, which was a great move. The company is also in discussions with Paramount about acquiring the worldwide rights to the third Cloverfield film, which we think is a less great move.
On top of all that, Netflix also put down $100 million for the highly-anticipated gangster pic The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.
“The streamers are continuing to push for more commercial fare and taking more control of their destinies by looking inward to develop content,” Verve partner Bryan Besser told THR.
Prestige-seekers such as A24, Fox Searchlight and Focus Features also sat out Sundance, which may say something about this year’s crop of films. But if we’re reading the tea leaves correctly, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video subscribers may be in store for bigger offerings.
Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to the viewer.