Why the Two Biggest Deals at Sundance Made My Heart Sink

The distribution deals that make headlines at the Sundance Film Festival can feel like engagement announcements (“‘The Big Sick’ will marry Amazon Studios for $12 million!”). Those deals mean the world to the parties involved (the filmmakers, the actors, the producers, the distribution companies, the agents and everybody’s mother). But even if you’re a critic like me, watching the action from the sidelines, it’s easy to get invested in the drama of watching the deals happen. It can feel like sports betting, like seeing your kid get into college, like the first draft of the awards race, or like the story of Cinderella. Which movies will be invited to the ball?

The happy ending you crave is when a movie you love finds the right home — the ideal boutique distributor, say, for a great documentary that’s going to need tender loving care (this year, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” getting picked up by Magnolia Pictures was the perfect example of that), or a bigger studio with deep pockets shelling out for a drama that has popular potential. When a movie gets picked up for a staggering amount of money, the hefty sum signifies that the company that bought it is invested — that the movie is going to get out there, that it will have its shot. The Sundance Cinderella story has happened dozens of times, going back to titles like “Reservoir Dogs” (picked up after the 1992 edition of Sundance by Miramax, one of those deals that arguably changed film history) and including such seminal movies as “Hustle & Flow,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Precious,” “Once,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Fruitvale Station” and “CODA.”

But not all big deals are created equal. Todd Field, the writer-director of “Tár,” has recently told a fascinating story about how when his first film, “In the Bedroom,” was picked up at Sundance by Miramax in 2001, a lot of filmmakers might have thought they’d won the lottery, but Field wound up weeping in the bathroom. He knew that his film was a delicate flower, and he was certain that Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein would re-cut it and wreck it. Tom Cruise, who Field got to know during the filming of “Eyes Wide Shut,” advised him (quite shrewdly) on how to avoid that fate. In the end, “In the Bedroom” was released to audiences in the version that Field made. But his story is still a parable, one that illustrates how even the headline-making deals at Sundance can have downsides as big as their upsides.

And that, to me, is exactly what happened this year. The two biggest deals to emerge from Sundance in 2023 were both about the triumphant purchase of films I thought were terrific: “Fair Play,” a sexy, riveting, close-to-the-bone financial drama with a lot to say about the post-#MeToo world, and “Flora and Son,” the latest super-charming lo-fi musical bauble from director John Carney (“Once”), featuring a star-making performance by Eve Hewson. “Fair Play,” which played to ecstatic early screenings that had several hungry distributors circling, wound up selling to Netflix for $20 million. “Flora and Son,” which also provoked a rapturous response, was bought by Apple for close to $20 million.

Do you sense a pattern here?

The movies both won the Sundance lottery, but guess what? Neither one is going to get the big prize that independent filmmakers have sought since the beginning of the independent-film revolution. Both movies were picked up by streaming services, which means that, in all likelihood, they will never play in theaters. My question is simple: On what earth are those good deals? You could say that “Fair Play” and “Flora and Son” will find sizable audiences on streaming. But I think it’s more likely that both films won the battle for distribution but lost the war.      

Okay, I can almost hear you saying that I’ve based that argument on antiquated thinking. Streaming services represent a major slice of the present and an even bigger slice of the future. They’re not automatically bad. Two years ago, “CODA” was bought at Sundance by Apple for $25 million and look what happened. It won the Oscar for best picture. The movie not only went to the ball — it married Prince Charming.

Yet “CODA,” precisely because of its paradigm-busting Academy Awards victory, is a great example of the phenomenon I’m talking about. I was a major supporter of the film at Sundance and was happy to see it triumph at the Oscars. Yet to this day, I feel as if that triumph happened in a vacuum. I rarely heard anyone talking about “CODA” outside the context of the awards race. How many people saw it? Were they enthused? To this day, I have no idea.

Whereas this year, the movies that are competing for best picture have all been widely talked about. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was a major hit in theaters and might be the love-it-or-hate-it movie of the decade. But even “Tár,” a great film that notoriously underperformed at the box office (it just inched past the $6 million mark), was one of the buzziest movies of the year. They used to say that the Velvet Underground’s first album sold only 100,000 copies but that everyone who bought it started a band. Well, everyone who saw “Tár” in a movie theater had an impassioned conversation about it. That’s how movies work. But imagine that “Tár” had been shown only on a streaming service. It would still be an awesome work of art, but no one would be talking about it. That’s the way streaming services work. They’re buzz killers.

The purchases of “Fair Play” and “Flora and Son” out of Sundance are, in each case, built on a fantastic — and to me rather tragic — irony: At the festival, both films generated the excitement they did because they are audience movies. There’s no other way to put it. “Fair Play,” which is not a glossy Adrian Lyne mercenary erotic potboiler, is a vibrant drama about corporate culture and the high anxiety that’s burbling just underneath the shifting sexual dynamics of our time. It’s a movie about men and women loving, and competing, in new ways, a movie, like “Promising Young Woman” (which would, and should, have been a firecracker in theaters), that makes you feel wired to the connection between what happens onscreen and what’s happening in our lives. And “Flora and Son,” in its bittersweet way, is an audacious musical. At moments, it gathers the audience into a collective swoon. At least, it does when there’s an audience.

“Flora and Son” (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I’m not saying that these films can’t — and won’t — be enjoyed at home. The whole theaters-vs.-streaming debate can sound, at times, idiotic, since it’s not only a fact that streaming is here to stay. It’s a fact that we’ve been watching relatively current movies at home since the early 1980s. It’s not a novel concept.

Yet what doesn’t get enough comment is that when movies go straight to streaming, it can feel like they’ve disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle. Many believe that Disney struck a self-inflicted blow to Pixar’s brand when it released “Turning Red” on streaming. Pixar movies had always been events; but the company reduced “Turning Red” to One More Piece of Product You Can See This Week at Home.

And Netflix is now in the position of actually fighting against theatrical success. When “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” was released in theaters, it was said to have made $15 million in its opening weekend. But the streamer limited the release to a one-week window, leading to a ton of media analysis of how much money Netflix left on the table. It might have been $100 million. Or maybe more. But the company isn’t stupid. Netflix left all that money on the table because Ted Sarandos, the leader of Netflix, didn’t want “Glass Onion” to make $100 million in theaters. If it did, that would be the single worst advertisement for his business plan, which is to keep everyone at home, even when the movies they’re watching — like the “Knives Out” films — practically beg for an audience. That’s the brave new world Sarandos is trying to create. That, in a way, is why Netflix bought “Fair Play.” In effect, they paid $20 million to take the hottest film at Sundance off the market.

It may sound like I’m ignoring the daunting economic realities of the independent-film world. It’s been reported that even the distributors who were interested in “Fair Play” were nervous about the poor track record of indie films last fall, and that they were cognizant of other factors: the dwindling number of theaters devoted to playing those kinds of films, the massive advertising budgets that are necessary to give the films a chance. I understand those arguments. But the trend of high-end dramas for adults underperforming can’t be turned into an automatic death sentence ­— or a banishment to the Siberia of streaming — for those films. It shouldn’t be turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Sundance Film Festival has come to represent something: a synergy of independence, adventurousness and audience. Call it the holy trinity. An audience at home is still an audience, but it’s an audience diminished in power, and one that diminishes the power of the films themselves. The deals that were struck for “Fair Play” and “Flora and Son” made the movies seem like very big fish. But what good is that if the ultimate upshot of those deals is to shrink the pond?