After dominating Sundance for 2 years, Netflix and Amazon bought zero movies at the festival this time around — and insiders told us why

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Wikimedia Commons

  • Amazon Studios and Netflix didn’t buy any movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
  • This is a shocking result compared to the past two years when both companies were on a spending spree at the fest.
  • Industry insiders told Business Insider one reason for the halt was that both companies are less interested in independent films and filmmakers are looking for traditional theatrical deals.

There were a lot of smiles around Park City, Utah, during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it wasn’t everyone enjoying the clean mountain air. The lack of buying activity by Amazon Studios and Netflix this year meant more companies got to be involved in the movie buys than in previous years.

After the streaming giants combined for double-digit acquisitions the past two years at the fest, both dramatically put on the brakes this year. This led to a lot more action for the traditional distribution companies and more activity for foreign sales agents, who had basically been sidelined the past few years as Amazon and Netflix took worldwide rights in their acquisitions.

Some felt this was just one of those years at Sundance where the lineup didn’t have many attractive commercial titles, as opposed to the past couple of years, which included “Mudbound” (which Netflix bought), “The Big Sick” (Amazon), “Icarus” (Netflix), and “Manchester by the Sea” (Amazon).

But many of those in the industry who Business Insider spoke with as the festival wound down last week said this Sundance marked the new game plan for both companies going forward and buying indie movies wasn’t a big part of it.

Netflix, Amazon to focus on making big-budget movies with stars

In 2016 the acquisition teams for Amazon and Netflix showed up with a binge mentality to Sundance. That year both companies left having bought six titles each. Then last year Netflix walked away with a staggering 10 titles bought (including a $12.5 million buy for “Mudbound”), while Amazon took five (including $12 million for “The Big Sick”). Neither company has bought a single title that played at the 2018 festival yet.

BI Graphics_Netflix Amazon Sundance Samantha Lee Business Insider

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Samantha Lee, Business Insider

Though both companies kicked the tires on some of the most talked-about titles from this year’s fest – Netflix was in the mix to buy the controversial “Assassination Nation” (Neon teamed with AGBO to take North American rights), while Amazon eyed the period drama “Colette” (which 30West and Bleecker Street bought) and one of the buzziest movies at this year’s festival, “The Tale” (HBO Films), according to sources – the consensus was that Amazon and Netflix were putting most of their focus into making bigger-budget titles.

According to one source, Netflix is no longer going to casually pay top dollar for indie titles that it can get later on in the library deals it has with most of the studios and distributors.

“They’ve learned that audiences don’t care if it’s first week or week 100, they are going to watch it,” a producer who wished to remain anonymous told Business Insider.

For others, the lack of buying from Amazon and Netflix at the fest confirmed what they had experienced or heard the companies were doing even at the script stage of projects: They’re mostly gunning for projects like Netflix’s “Bright,” starring Will Smith, or a blue-chip IP like Amazon’s upcoming “Lord of the Rings” series.

The streaming companies turning their backs on indies became public before Sundance 2018 started when Reuters ran a story that Amazon was cutting down on buying indie films. (However, both companies came to the festival with titles – the Gloria Allred documentary “Seeing Allred” and comedy “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” for Netflix; Spike Lee’s latest movie “Pass Over” for Amazon.)

Amazon sent Business Insider the following statement when we contacted them for comment: “We are not abandoning the indie space, we are increasing the potential size of the audience for our films; that in some cases involves higher budgets, but in others not. It’s about the potential for the film not the cost,” said Jason Ropell, head of worldwide film at Amazon Studios following the Reuters story. “Our roots are in independent/prestige film and we intend to continue in that space using it as a springboard to expansion and scale.”

It’s clear that since both Netflix and Amazon considered buying some titles at the fest this year they were, at the very least, window shopping. But it’s also clear that neither Amazon or Netflix is buying quantity over quality, as in the past.

Netflix was interested in one of the most talked-about movies of this year's Sundance,

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Netflix was interested in one of the most talked-about movies of this year’s Sundance, “Assassination Nation,” but the movie went to Neon.
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Sundance Institute

A source close to Amazon told Business Insider that the company’s slate for 2018 is pretty much locked, so it was going into Sundance very selective. But that doesn’t mean the company won’t buy something it believes has awards potential at another festival like the Cannes Film Festival in May.

And just because neither company has bought anything during Sundance doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the coming months. Often the weeks following the festival are when the buying is most prevalent.

Not all filmmakers want to work with Amazon and Netflix

But neither company holds all the cards. They also have to have willing sellers.

Recently, indie filmmakers have passed on deals with Amazon and Netflix because they wanted a traditional release for their movies.

Though Amazon has understood this better than Netflix – because Amazon gives most of the films it acquires traditional theatrical releases before making them available to stream – Netflix often doesn’t (or the release is extremely limited), and that has led to the company missing out on some titles.

Nate Parker signed a record-breaking $17.5 million deal with Fox Searchlight for his Sundance grand jury prize-winning movie “Birth of a Nation” in 2016. And at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival the hot acquisition title of the fest, “I, Tonya,” went to Neon. In both cases, the filmmakers wanted their movies shown in a significant number of theaters and passed on Netflix offers.

“Big deals with Netflix and Amazon are good paydays for the producers, but for the directors, having a movie that doesn’t get a good theatrical release doesn’t help them get their next movie made,” a source told Business Insider. “Their title just becomes one of thousands on the sites.”

Business Insider asked Netflix to comment for this story but did not get a response.