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Sundance Festival 2016: Big sales amid streaming service takeover

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birth of a nation
Actor Nate Parker plays the role of historical rebellion leader Nat Turner in the 2016 Sundance film “The Birth of a Nation.” (Source: sundance.org)

2/2/16

By THOMAS KIKA

The Oscars?  Those are old news, friend. 

With the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, concluded, the biggest and most interesting films that the indie scene has to offer for the next year and beyond have had their time in the spotlight, vying for the attention of film-lovers and distributors alike. It is far from hyperbole to call this a huge year for the festival, with record-shattering sales and big moves by exciting new kids on the block, all of which teases an exciting near future at the movies.

The biggest success story of this year’s festival – and, indeed, of the entire history of Sundance – was “The Birth of a Nation,” starring, written, and directed by rapidly rising star, Nate Parker (“The Great Debaters,” “Beyond the Lights”). Based on the well-known slave uprising, the provocatively-titled film tells the story of Nat Turner (Parker), the man who led his fellow slaves in rebellion against plantation owners in 19th Century Virginia. After the premiere, critics enthusiastically praised the film for its impactful brutality and its strong sense of urgency, though some offered a more measured critique of the film as heavy-handed. 

Perhaps further propelled by the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy, studios were quick to start the bidding war for the rights to distribute the acclaimed film. Nearly every studio in Hollywood was in the mix, including Sony, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, and Lionsgate, according to Deadline. Eventually, Fox Searchlight won the rights with a staggering $17.5 million bid, the largest in Sundance history, after Searchlight’s own $12 million bid for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” in 2015. 

Streaming giant Netflix bid as high as $20 million, but it was decided that Searchlight, the distributor of films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman,” was more suited to push the film for awards, in contrast to the less experienced streaming service, whose first original film, “Beasts of No Nation,” was completely shut out at the Oscars this year.  No firm release date has been set, but Searchlight is expected to give “The Birth of a Nation” an awards-friendly fall 2016 release. 

It was not just the size of the deals that shook things up at this year’s festival, it was also who was making them. Ramping up their original content pushes, Amazon Studios and Netflix made big waves with a wide variety of distribution deals, including some very high-profile films. 

Amazon scored the biggest get, nabbing early critical darling “Manchester by the Sea” to the tune of $10 million. The film, a rare new release from celebrated director Kenneth Lonergan (“Margaret”), sees a man (Casey Affleck) forced to move back to his hometown and take legal guardianship of his nephew after the death of his brother.

Along with praise for Lonergan’s expectedly exceptional sense of human drama, “Manchester by the Sea” has also drawn praise for what sounds like a career best performance from Casey Affleck. Amazon is expected to reteam with its “Chi-Raq” distribution partner, Roadside Attractions, to give the film a strong awards push this fall. 

Beyond that, Amazon also bought the rights to films like the well-received Jane Austen adaptation, “Love & Friendship,” and the rights to “Weiner-Dog,” the latest from provocative auteur Todd Solondz. While certainly making their presence known, Netflix came away with some less than exciting acquisitions, including the Ellen Page drama, “Tallulah,” and the Paul Rudd-Selena Gomez vehicle, “The Fundamentals of Caring.” While certainly liked by some, those films overall had much more muted receptions. 

Beyond all of the big, headline-grabbing events were the many other interesting films seeking exposure at the festival. “Swiss Army Man” put a dark spin on the “Cast Away” story, with Paul Dano as a stranded man who befriends a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe.  “Southside with You” took a “Before Sunrise”-inspired look at Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date back in 1989. “Sleight” offered a sci-fi-tinged tale about a young street magician trying to use his talents to provide for his family. The list goes on, and anyone with an interest in independent cinema, or cinema in general, is certain to find something that peaks their interest in the Sundance 2016 catalogue. 

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