Netflix and Amazon turned up at Sundance with their wallets stuffed, looking to spend. And while they may not have left with everything they wanted, they certainly stormed the party and took some of the best stuff with them, such asLove & Friendship (Amazon) and The Fundamentals of Caring (Netflix). The spending binge highlights an expansion of their respective strategies, moving them beyond original TV-like content, expanding towards a more art-house, niche segment. As a result, movie fans will soon be able to get their indie film fix at home, as easy as binge-watching Mad Men or Downton Abbey.
Sundance bestows status to independent films; simply by being screened at the legendary venue which recognized iconic sex, lies and videotape, American Splendor, and the like; being picked up by a movie studio is a sure path to mass audiences and used to be every filmmaker’s Holy Grail. But now that one-in-three US homes have a streaming subscription, major studios are no longer the only game in town that can offer original movie content. This is clearly good for the industry in terms of the available cash and options available to filmmakers, although this New World is still not necessarily one that everyone is enamored of yet.
A case in point was the sale of the high-profile historical film, The Birth of a Nation, which went to Fox Searchlight. Apparently, filmmaker Nate Turner passed on an additional $2.5MM from Netflix, to guarantee a theatrical distribution for his oeuvre. (let’s pause for a moment: Turner left $2.5MM on the table, whereas the vast majority of acquisitions last year were less than $1MM). There is the perception that Netflix, big as it is, still offers a more limited audience which would net less than the classic studio model and its associated box office revenue. This perception will presumably change over time, and a mix of genres and pipelines — blockbusters in the multiplex, indie films in art house venues and niche films to stream — will fill distinct viewing needs and peacefully coexist for the foreseeable future.
And, of course, for these streaming services, it’s not simply a matter of throwing money down on the table: Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have proven their acquisition savvy by successfully identifying viewers’ favorite TV shows and movies. Netflix and Amazon won multiple Golden Globes and Emmys for original content that has kept their viewers entertained for several years running; snapping up feature-length productions at Sundance is a natural source for their evolving context mix. And as the Globes, Emmys and even Oscars roll in, the value and prestige of being linked to these pipelines will surely grow.