The biggest players at the Sundance Film Festival are Hollywood outsiders. Amazon and Netflix, with their deep pockets and big ambitions, have picked up several films and have driven…
The biggest players at the Sundance Film Festival are Hollywood outsiders. Amazon and Netflix, with their deep pockets and big ambitions, have picked up several films and have driven up the bidding for others. Backed by the might of their massive audiences, superior technology, and business models unfettered by the typical constraints of Hollywood, these tech giants provide a new hope for independent filmmakers.
Amazon’s bought five independent films so far, including the well-received Manchester by the Sea for a reported $10 million. Netflix, meanwhile, has picked up streaming rights for three films, including Tallulah starring Ellen Page, and announced it will produce a slate of indie features. And the film festival isn’t over until the end of this week.
This isn’t the first year Netflix and Amazon have attended Sundance. But their presence looms larger than ever over the festival and the film industry. As major studios have been slower to pick up films, the two tech titans have aggressively offered top dollar, rattling the nerves of those at established studios.
And yet for filmmakers, their interest offers a new kind of opportunity. At the most basic level, the big budgets offer filmmakers a chance to repay investors. More importantly, Netflix and Amazon provide access to a much wider potential audience while promoting a diverse range of stories and ginning up excitement for independent films in general. But as Netflix and Amazon try to change the industry, they must reckon with what filmmakers ultimately want. And what’s good for artists isn’t always what’s good for Amazon and Netflix.
A New Arthouse Circuit
Independent filmmakers have always struggled to find funding and an audience. But in the past 10 years, the number of indie filmmakers has grown substantially as the cost of making films has dwindled, making competition for distribution even more cutthroat. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to get independent films distributed whether that’s in traditional movie theaters or even on cable,”says Tom Nunan, a founder and partner of Bull’s Eye Entertainment and a lecturer at UCLA’s school of theater, film, and television.
In recent years, however, Netflix and Amazon have come onto the scene with platforms that command tens of millions of viewers—and perhaps just as importantly, seemingly unlimited bandwidth. After all, streaming video isn’t limited by the number of available movie screens or TV time slots.
As both tech companies amassed their inventories of self-produced content, they also started acquiring independent films, ranging from the big Sundance acquisitions this year to smaller buys that end up on their services through distributors. “The idea that the streaming services can be our new arthouse circuit is just nothing short of lifesaving for these artistic storytellers,” Nunan says.
“The best thing is that because of Netflix and Amazon and all of these places, everyone can see these movies all over the world,” says Rob Burnett, the writer and director of The Fundamentals of Caring, to which Netflix acquired the streaming rights ahead of Sundance. “All of these movies that may not get theatrical releases, or may get minimal theatrical releases, they can now be seen.”
Netflix and Amazon not only offer built-in audiences, but those audiences can experiment more easily. While most moviegoers may not want to “risk” an entire evening stuck in a theater watching, say, an independent documentary about concrete changing color, Nunan says, tuning in at home on Netflix or Amazon demands virtually no investment. The film is already paid for, and can be turned off at any time.
Amazon says it has seen “good demand” for independent films. “If you don’t live right in a city, it may not be convenient to see some of these very interesting independent films,” says Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios. “But once you take that constraint out of the system, we’ve observed there are categories that tend to thrive when they have greater availability. It’s been a good few years for independent films and documentaries.”
The tech giants also have more leeway to experiment. Their subscription-based models mean they don’t need every film to be a blockbuster. A single movie or show on Netflix and Amazon needn’t appeal to everyone; the key for both platforms is making sure they offer enough of everything to attract anyone.
Renowned filmmaker Spike Lee, for example, was able to get his film Chi-Raq made by Amazon after being turned down by the major studios. “It’s a great option for filmmakers because now you have another place to go to. I knew going in that it would be a very long shot for a major studio to do Chi-Raq. Thank god Amazon [did],” Lee says. “The more options there are, the more options there are for anybody, including young filmmakers.”
While most independent filmmakers don’t set out to make a film specifically for Netflix or Amazon, the companies have shown a notable interest in making and acquiring films (and TV shows) with diverse casts and nontraditional storylines. Netflix is known for originals like Orange is the New Black and Beasts of No Nation, while Amazon has found success with Transparent. Price says Amazon seeks inspiring, memorable movies such as the “not middle-of-the-road” Chi-Raq.
Netflix, meanwhile, acquired the streaming rights to the Iranian horror film Under the Shadow at Sundance this year, showing an appetite for films that play well around the world. “Having a global platform means that these films can get global distribution and find a following in places that likely wouldn’t have seen them otherwise,” a Netflix spokeswoman says.
“It’s really lessened the gatekeeping that a lot of the studios have had,” says Eugene Martin, a filmmaker and the chair of the media arts department at the University of North Texas. “The upside of all this is you now have many more kinds of people making movies. A lot more people who never got to have access have access now.”
By offering bigger bids and budgets for less mainstream films, Amazon and Netflix could have a wider impact on the kinds of films that get made. “The offer they made for the global SVOD [or streaming] rights made it profitable for our investors,” says Russell Levine, the CEO of Route One and a producer of Tallulah, a film about the struggles of motherhood made with a largely female driven cast and crew.
Levine adds that the impact has already been tremendous for the film, but will also have a real impact on the future of films written by, directed by, and starring women. “The challenge for us is it’s a male-dominated distribution system… I think there’s a lack of understanding on the part of distributors about the power of the female market,” he adds. By getting the return on their investment with a streaming deal alone, he says investors will be more likely to make movies like Tallulah in the future.
The Way Things Were
Not everyone is happy with Netflix and Amazon’s dominant stance at Sundance. For established distributors, the tech giants buying the rights to films, even just the global streaming rights, has proven extremely frustrating. “They’re peeved,” Levine says.
The companies also are changing the rules in a way that creates more complexity for filmmakers. In some cases, Netflix has split theatrical and streaming rights, making the theatrical rights less desirable on their own, since studios have traditionally recouped some of their investment by re-selling the right to stream. In a bid for Birth of a Nation, for example, Netflix reportedly insisted on being able to release a film on its streaming service and in theaters simultaneously, as it did for Beasts of No Nation. (A move theater owners saw as being more about contending for awards than actually promoting films in theaters.)
Amazon, on the other hand, has offered to allow filmmakers to release their movies in theaters before streaming them. “I think a theatrical release is good for customers, because they get to see the movies in theaters if they can. It’s obviously a great way, or the best way, to see a movie. Also, filmmakers want to see their films in theaters,” Price says. “So we will try to support a robust theatrical run for every movie, as robust a theatrical run as… is appropriate for that film.”
Still a Business
For the films that don’t make it to theaters, ending up on Netflix in particular can also mean a filmmaker is left in the dark. The company is famously reluctant to reveal viewing figures for any specific piece of content, even to filmmakers themselves. “The big issue is that there’s no transparency,” says Enid Zentelis, an award-winning director and teacher at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts.
Zentelis argues that filmmakers can reap a lot of information from the box office numbers that come with a theatrical release. Those numbers help inform future filmmaking choices. Even more importantly, they can influence how much a filmmaker is able to sell her work for in the future.
Not getting such data can leave makers of films that don’t get a theatrical release or sell for seven figures at Sundance feeling lost. Netflix and Amazon are valuable platforms even for the smallest indie films that make it onto the services. But when making films on limited budgets, the commercial success of a film does matter, and knowing how well a film fared with audiences depends on some kind of data.
“You’re trying to prove that people are watching your films,” says Zack Godshall, a filmmaker and assistant professor at Louisiana State University. “There’s a movie out there that’s comparable to the movie I’m trying to pitch to investors. If you just tell an investor, ‘Oh, it was on Netflix,’ it doesn’t mean that much.”
Senior associate editor Angela Watercutter contributed reporting to this story.
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