Sundance ’17: SVODs prove they are in it to win it

by Valentina Valentini PARK CITY, UTAH – It’s fair to say that filmmakers have long held a preference for theatrical release – it is forever tied to that special something about seeing ...
January 27, 2017

by Valentina Valentini

PARK CITY, UTAH – It’s fair to say that filmmakers have long held a preference for theatrical release – it is forever tied to that special something about seeing their projects up on the silver screen. But does the chance at a global audience of tens of millions of subscribers, not to mention some significant dollars paid upfront, make a distribution deal with an SVOD platform like Netflix and Amazon sweeter?

With still two more days until the end of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix has bought up six documentary features (some before the fest) and Amazon has bought one for over a whopping $6 million – Long Strange Trip (pictured),  the four-hour film about the Grateful Dead from director Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) and executive producer Martin Scorsese.

Their presence at the festival, and willingness to spend, is no doubt shaking up old patterns.

“Both of these players have the scale to publicize and monetize these purchases effectively,” digital analyst Kaan Yigit told realscreen. Meanwhile, “the vast majority of traditional players are somewhat hesitant to increase their spend, especially on smaller niche titles because they rely on older distribution models and not direct-to-consumer like Netflix and Amazon.”

With the digital pair’s purchasing behavior in recent years at Sundance (especially last year when Amazon spent $10 million for the scripted drama Manchester By The Sea, now squarely in the running for an Oscar) it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that their numbers will continue to stay high when they whip out their checkbooks.

And already, it’s clear that Netflix is strong in the nonfiction game.

Earlier this week, Netflix, now with nearly 94 million subscribers, secured three Academy Awards nominations across the documentary features and shorts landscapes, and has plans to launch into 2017 with 20 original unscripted titles – more than doubling it’s output from the previous year.

“The strategy for unscripted is similar to the strategy we’ve had for the scripted space where we were seeking high quality, diverse programming that would play to a global audience,” Cindy Holland, Netflix VP original content, said in a keynote at Realscreen Summit in Washington, D.C. this week.

In contrast, Amazon is sticking to a more selective slate after rolling out its streaming platform in more than 200 countries in December. At the same time, they make no bones about their willingness to spend the dollars to secure what it is they want.

Jason Ropell, head of film at Amazon Studios, told The Hollywood Reporter at the start of the fest, To say ‘We’re kind of targeting X number’ doesn’t make much sense. What you want to do is to be prepared for, ‘Look, if it’s one to none or all the way to being six again or more maybe,’ you have to be prepared for whatever the opportunities — and we are.”

It’s worth noting, too, that both SVODs aren’t opposed to sending their biggest titles into theatres before they become available online. It’s a strategy that is increasingly winning not only awards show nominations (and hardware), but also the attentions of top filmmaking talent.

Indiewire‘s Anne Thompson explained it in an analysis of Amazon’s tricks of the trade as to why going SVOD looks better and better for filmmakers coming out of film festivals: “[They offer] an attractive combination of theatrical distributor and indie entrepreneur willing to try new things as well as the backing of an established company eager to support a movie […] and their willingness to stick within Hollywood’s theatrical windows — in an increasingly VOD world — marks a huge advantage with filmmakers eager to achieve a broad theatrical release with all the bells and whistles a big marketing and publicity campaign can bring.”

So it would seem, in fact, that filmmakers – sometimes – don’t even have to lose out on that coveted theatrical run, however, this argument was made in regards to all their content – narrative included.

“These companies have the dollars to experiment with supporting all types of films and we’ve seen them support some incredible documentaries over the past several years,” said Liz Cook, director of documentary film at Kickstarter. “Netflix and Amazon have been playing in the nonfiction game for awhile […] and I think they recognize that supporting nonfiction storytelling has only become even more vital, especially as we enter this new era of ‘alternative facts.’ Documentaries can democratize the stories that are told and voices that are heard and both [distribution platforms] are in the position to contribute in a meaningful way.”

And they’re not alone. YouTube was in Park City with its biggest footprint to date with the world premiere of This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous – the first YouTube Red Original film to premiere at the festival as an official selection. Who knows, maybe in five years YouTube will be buying up the next Oscar contender for the following year.

“I just re-tweeted the first ever nomination for Amazon for an Oscar,” said Yigit, in reference to Manchester By the Sea. “We are looking at a significant inflection point for these services; they are becoming triple-A content services, not just secondary alternatives like they have been in the past five years.”


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