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Streaming Services Shake-Up Market At Sundance Film Festival


Internet streaming services Netflix and Amazon are shaking up the film festival business. At Sundance this year, the services bid up the prices of independent films and upended the strategy of traditional Hollywood players. Thanks to that competition, "The Birth Of A Nation," a biopic about the slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, broke a Sundance record with Fox Searchlight picking up the distribution rights to the movie for more than $17 million. Tatiana Siegel is a senior film writer at the Hollywood Reporter, and she says Netflix and Amazon succeeded in part by jumping in early.

TATIANA SIEGEL: Basically Netflix bought two big projects coming into the festival. They struck their deals before the festival even started. So they picked up a Paul Rudd movie called "The Fundamentals Of Caring" for nearly $7 million. And they also bought the Ellen Page drama "Tallulah," and that was for 5 million. So basically, to put those numbers in context, two eras ago, the top sale at the whole festival was $3.5 million for a Kristen Wiig movie called "The Skeleton Twins."

CORNISH: Whoa, OK. So they're getting in early, and they're going bigger when they do.

SIEGEL: Exactly.

CORNISH: When you think about why the streaming services were able to kind of upend the market this time around, what are some of the reasons? I mean, are they just the cool kids in town? Do they have more money? What's - how are they seen?

SIEGEL: I think it's all of the above. They had more money. They came in with very deep pockets and were willing to spend. I think it's also because they hired away people from some of the traditional distributors that would be their buyers on the site in Sundance looking for the hot movies. And these people are professionals. They know what they're looking for. They've read the scripts. And so last year, Netflix only bought one small documentary, and Amazon bought nothing. This year, they came in fully staffed and ready to go.

CORNISH: How are the traditional movie studios reacting to all this financially or otherwise?

SIEGEL: I think they're seething because A - it's driving up the prices even when they do land a movie. So you had something like "Birth Of A Nation" which was not bought by Netflix or Amazon. However, Netflix was bidding, and they bid $20 million. So at the end of the day, that jacked up the price for the ultimate sale of this movie, and there's no doubt about that.

CORNISH: But is there any sense, like - do we know what it might have gotten before an Amazon or a Netflix came onto the scene?

SIEGEL: Before Netflix and Amazon really came onto the scene this year, the high water mark was $10 million. There are a few movies that have sold for the $10 million mark, so, I mean, you could guess or extrapolate and say, well, maybe it would've sold for $10 million if Netflix and Amazon weren't kind of making this earth-shattering type of moves at the festival.

CORNISH: You've described the movie studios in reaction to all this as seething (laughter), which is pretty strong. I mean, they got outgunned. Are they really that surprised?

SIEGEL: I think they're shocked. I think that no one expected both of these services to come in and really buy like they have - seven movies total already, and the festival's basically at the midpoint.

CORNISH: Why would movie studios really care? Is it just that they're embarrassed (laughter) that they've been, you know, outmaneuvered? 'Cause these aren't films they're really giving audiences anyway.

SIEGEL: Well, the big movie studios are making the blockbusters, and they probably don't care as much. But all of the big studios also have these small specialty labels, which is part of the Sundance game plan - kind of go to Sundance with your smaller labels like Fox Searchlight and the Sony Pictures Classics and buy something that might get us an Oscar and sort of give them the cachet that they need as well as the big blockbusters.

CORNISH: That's Tatiana Siegel of the Hollywood Reporter. Tatiana, thanks so much.

SIEGEL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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