Selling at Sundance: What Can the Past Three Years Teach Us?
In the back of the head of any indie filmmaker, there is a three steps program to reach heaven:
- step 1: getting into a Sundance Lab
- step 2: screening at Sundance
- step 3: selling at Sundance
Steps 1 and 2 are opportunities that have always proven beneficial to any filmmaker because, even if you don’t get to sell your film at Sundance, you get to nurture your craft (step 1), and meet with peers (step 1 & 2) and showcase your work in front of an audience (step 2) and gain visibility (step 2).
Step 3 is more tricky. Selling your film during the Sundance Film Festival feels like the ultimate accomplishment and yet, we know, we know that this is not necessarily the best thing that can happen to either a film or a distributor. Sundance creates a lot of hype; if you have been there, you know how high the adrenaline is and how sometimes, people get caught up. In recent years, we’ve seen filmmakers like Shane Carruth for Upstream Color or Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky, the tandem behind Indie Game, the Movie taking alternate roads for their film, self-distributing them and doing great ( based on the visibility they both received in the media and the number of platforms the films are shared on).
So how good is it for a film to get a Sundance distribution deal? Of course it’s hard to say, because what does ‘good’ mean, right? But when it comes to money, are Sundance movies usually recouping?
The good news is that Emily Best, from Seed&Spark, and Giorgia Lupi from Accurat joined forces and released Selling at Sundance, an infographic with data from the last 3 Sundance, showing which movies sold for how much, what was their budget and how much did they do at the box office.
This is a packed with data infographic that is worth checking in detail, but here are couple of highlights:
- “The number of awards a film wins has little correlation to box office performance. Even an Academy Award nomination doesn’t guarantee profit.” That feels like both a bummer, for those who thought peer and media recognition had any impact on potential audience, and a good news since the odds are not really in anyone’s favor when it comes to winning one award.
- It doesn’t matter if your film screens at Sundance, the higher your budget, the lowest your chances for recouping are. And ‘high’ when it comes to indie movie, doesn’t mean that high. Just passing the $4 million benchmark limits greatly your chance to recouping anything in theaters. (keep in mind these numbers only include Domestic theatrical release) Besides The Way Way Back ($4.6M budget, $23M at the BO), and Don Jon ($6M budget, $17M at the BO) most films above $4M budget crashed. The excellent and beloved Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, acquired for $1M only made $0.4 at the BO, Lovelace, acquired for $3M made $0.357M, and even a movie like Margin Call, with high profile actors, good critics and a strong marketing campaign only made $3.4M at the BO (for a budget of $5,18M).
- Another interesting point is that, but for four films, all Sundance acquired movies were released between July and October. The majority of them during August, the dead month of the year, the blockbuster month, the family movie month. Odd, isn’t it?
All and all, from the last three years, it feels like even though Sundance has regained its title of ‘THE INDIE FILM FESTIVAL’ in North America and probably the world, and even though buyers are back at Park City, the smartest move is to keep making a film under 200K or, really if you can’t help it, under $1M. One thing that we do know is that Sundance Jury will never chose a winner because of its budget, so if you are working on your first feature, keep it real and just enjoy Step 1 and/or 2, step 3 is a bonus and if it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean it’s the end for your film.