At Sundance, Netflix and Amazon Rewrite How Indie Films Get Made

February 4, 2019

Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Apple: it’s a quadruple tick for this year’s Sundance Festival. All four major streaming platforms have already sealed some deal or other.

From Hulu’s $2 million (£1.53 million) purchase of Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary – an impressive achievement for a documentary, which typically aim for half that money – to Amazon’s $13 million deal for the rights of Mindy Kaling’s comedy Late Night. That’s the second biggest acquisition in the history of Sundance, after Fox Searchlight’s $17.5 million deal on The Birth of a Nation in 2016.

For independent filmmakers who are trying to make a name for themselves, coming to Sundance is a huge opportunity. But in reality, it’s only half the way to success. Once in Park City, Utah, it’s all about wooing the studios that make the industry go round, such as HBO or Sony, to try to get a decent distribution deal for their work.

Except in recent years, the old players have been usurped by tech upstarts with deep pockets and big ambitions. Their aim? To become the platform of choice for talented filmmakers looking to reach wider audiences.

Take Amazon Prime Video, for example. Prime has a “self-release” option that lets filmmakers upload their titles free of charge and get paid based on the number of streams they generate. “That is essentially giving a home to titles that would otherwise struggle to gain recognition, and stay stuck in a folder on a laptop,” says Richard Broughton, research director at Ampere Analysis.

Is Prime the new platform of choice for niche films that are given the cold shoulder by bigger studios? Yes and no. Michael Dominic is a documentary-maker currently working on Clean Hands, which will premiere at the Cinequest festival next March. Last year, he uploaded his previous film Sunshine Hotel to Prime – and the first months brought incredible results. “It did something close to $45,000 the first year,” he says. “That’s more than Sunshine had ever made.”

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