Netflix, Apple TV+ Go Mining for Gold at Sundance; Is Betting on Indie Films Good Strategy for Streamers?
It’s a magical time of year for independent film producers. The Sundance Film Festival is currently underway in Park City, Utah, and huge media conglomerates and movie stars alike have converged on the sleepy ski town to celebrate the best in independent cinema.
Representatives of streaming services are there too, but this year only Apple TV+ and Netflix have been big buyers so far. Apple spent nearly $20 million to acquire the rights to “Flora and Son” from director John Carney, while Netflix shelled out an equivalent number to snag the corporate thriller “Fair Play,” according to reporting from TV Rev.
Apple TV+’s presence at the film festival should surprise precisely no one, as it became the first streaming service to take home a Best Picture Oscar in 2021 for “CODA,” which it also acquired at Sundance. Given that film’s success, it might be surprising that more streaming platforms aren’t buzzing around trying to acquire the next big award-winner.
However, the indie film festival seems tailor-made for some streaming services more than others; Sundance films fit right in with the image that Apple wants to portray. Apple TV+ is a streamer that prioritizes quality over quantity, preferring to produce its own original series with recognizable stars over simply churning out show after show, or picking up the licenses to series like “Grey's Anatomy” or “The Simpsons” to offer more lean-back viewing.
That’s a bit of a risky move for Apple, especially if FX chairman John Landegraf in his assessment that up to 80% of total TV watching is lean-back. Many streamers are looking for more content that people can watch while they lean back and enjoy a conversation with a friend, or scroll on their phone, or even while they do chores around the house. Apple’s more interested in forcing people to lean forward and pay attention, which is what review-driven independent Sundance films are all about.
Both Apple TV+ and Netflix are taking a bit of a risk getting involved in Sundance films, in that picking Oscar bait isn’t an exact science. Films shown at this year’s festival won’t be eligible for Oscar nominations until 2024, and a lot of competition will hit theaters between now and then. Streaming services also took a step back in the 2023 Oscar nominations, garnering 19 total nods. That’s almost 50% less than the 37 Academy Award nominations that streaming services got in total in 2022.
The upshot for streaming providers is that films they decide to gamble on at Sundance are usually significantly cheaper than more mainstream movies. The rights to Will Smith’s historical drama “Emancipation” cost Apple $120 million, and Netflix had to pay $450 million just for the rights to develop two “Knives Out” sequels. Sundance films usually cost a fraction of that amount, and if they do win big at awards ceremonies they have the potential to attract scores of new subscribers; not to mention any potential box office income.
The flip side to that equation is that $20 million is still $20 million. Streaming services like HBO Max that are hyper-focused on paying down debt may not see the wisdom in gambling on arthouse films that, if they don’t garner attention from awards voters, probably won’t generate many views. Netflix can afford to make those gambles, as it is the only major streaming service to report being profitable, and because it offers dozens of lean-back alternatives to stream once viewers finish their lean-forward experience. And Apple, with its streaming business just a fraction of its overall interests, has the ability to take risks and hope that the return on investment pays large, long-lasting dividends.
All of this likely adds up to the fact that this year, there may not be as many streaming services bidding enthusiastically on Sundance films. But if something from this year’s festival starts to gather big Oscar buzz heading into 2024, next year could be a bonanza for independent filmmakers once again.