Sundance And The Curious Case Of The $15 Million Dollar Movies

It’s that time of year, again.

The Sundance Film Festival begins this Thursday, and with it comes a slew of festival premieres, celebrity appearances, parties, snow, skiing, drinking, useless wool-based schwag and a slate of movies ripe for the taking if you have a fat checkbook and no need for that pesky thing they call profit.

But that’s not the story. The story is…will companies continue to make horrible investment choices like they did last year and the year before that and the year before that…while watching movies in the “Sundance Bubble”? Will companies throw down huge sums of money like Amazon Studios did last year on films like Late Night ($15m), Brittany Runs a Marathon ($14m), The Report ($12m) and Honey Boy ($5m). Will major studios like New Line do the same thing? Like they did on Blinded By The Light ($15m)?

Yes. Yes, they will.

But why would they do something so irresponsible like that? Why spend so much more than what it actually cost to make the film? Is the supply and demand so skewed that these films are worth that amount? Why why why why why why why…would they do that?

Answer: The Sundance Bubble

If you’ve ever been to Sundance, and you’ve ever been there on one of the opening nights of a film, you’ve been privy to what no one (but everyone) calls The Sundance Bubble. It’s a mysterious, invisible bubble that surrounds big premiere theaters like the Eccles, and compounds the impact of the oxygen reduction caused by the altitude for anyone watching the films in the packed opening night house. Scientifically speaking, of course, the lack of oxygen can cause shortness of breath, feelings of ecstasy, rapid breathing that stimulates excitement, high blood pressure that results in abnormally-fast decision making, and the kind of confusion that causes financial soothsayers to estimate a film can make more at the box office than it actually can.

That, my friends, is the curse of the Sundance Bubble.

There was the year that Birth of a Nation premiered at the Eccles. One half of the audience was filled with filmmakers, crew and other crowds made up of people who were predestined to love the film because they were connected to the film in some way. Everyone knew this was the audience makeup. It was clearly known.

But…the Sundance Bubble.

While it wasn’t a horrible film, it wasn’t a great film, but the audience was so raucous, and the applause so deafening that white film executives with Texas Instruments scientific calculators in their pockets, read the room at approximately a $17.5 million price tag. Fox Searchlight ponied it up, and no thanks to Nate Parker’s horrible skeletons in the closet, its attempts to be profitable fell on deaf wallets.

Buh-ble.

Of course, there was the year that Me, Earl and the Dying Girl was snapped up for $12 million after an audience premiere that blew the doors off the Eccles. Clearly, the Marketing teams who weren’t at the festival couldn’t be heard as they screamed bloody murder about the horrible potential for a film about Earl, dying and cancer. No one in Park City could hear their cries of desperate pain because the bubble is also soundproof. The film went on to make $9 million, which was nowhere near the total costs of the film which approached $20 million.

Bauble.

There was the year that Dope sold to primarily white studio film executives who thought it was the hippest movie about African Americans ever. The Sundance Bubble kept them from doing their due diligence and understanding what the community was actually looking for. But again, the Bubble can make a white person think they know what minority audiences want, can make studios think they know what the indie audiences want, and as was the case with the $10 million pickup of Assassination Nation by our good friends at Neon, can convince upstart indie distributors that teenage girls (a) want to see teenage girls objectified on-screen and (b) actually put down the Tik Tok and drive to a movie theater to see something that isn’t on Netflix.

Neither assumption was true, because, well… the Buh Ble.

Sometimes the Bubble can not only affect the brain’s logic centers, it can also keep noxious smells like farts from getting out, like was the case with the film Swiss Army Man, which saw multiple articles highlighting the horrible response, walk-outs, and general problematic gross-out humor. Of course, in this case, the Bubble was the inverse bubble. People judged the film by what happened in the bubble, and only A24 saw the bubble for what it was — a big translucent sphere filled with money.

Yes, sometimes the Sundance Bubble reflects in on itself and tricks the people in the bubble to see something different from what’s really going on in the bubble.

Sometimes the Bubble is actually the Elbbub.

There have been famous overpayments throughout the decades. No Sundance historian goes to bed without recounting the story of Hamlet 2. It not only utilized that Sundance Bubble to its $10 million dollar sale advantage (to Focus Features) but then popped in a gloriously depressing way when the film only netted $4 at the domestic box office. That was a movie that had people scratching their heads endlessly, until they returned to a normal altitude where the sudden inclusion of more oxygen to their brain cells made them realize just how much of a horrid film it actually was. But it was too late. Steve Coogan’s bank accounts were thankfully helped by the curse of the bubble.

So why do people pay so much for movies at a festival?

Sometimes, it’s out of necessity. Sometimes, companies like Amazon Studios don’t have enough content for their annual slate. Despite producing content, they still need more movies to release. In those scenarios, money doesn’t much matter, as long as you keep buying Power Bars and stockings from the Buy n’ More of the real world. Even a failure like Late Night or Brittany Runs a Marathon (failure, of course, based on purchase price + marketing cost in relation to box office profits), can be offset by that $800 Millenium Falcon Lego some soccer Mom in Omaha just bought for her 38 year old man child of a husband.

Sometimes, it’s about making a statement. Sometimes, companies like Netflix just want to post a big number next to a headline in one of the Trade papers. Sometimes paying $10 million for a documentary that only cost $1.5 million isn’t about the money; it’s about the message.

But sometimes? It’s the bubble.

Like Ferris Bueller once said, “Sundance moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”

And that’s exactly the problem. With five to seven premieres a day, and film companies pushing hard to fill some of their annual release slots with films, people have to move pretty fast. They can’t wait for reviews. They can’t wait for big spreadsheets and financial reporting. They can only go by the word in the theater, the word on the street and the echoes of the laughter ricocheting off the sides of that gloriously-large, extremely problematic Sundance Bubble.

And often times, without taking a moment to take a breath, think logically about whether or not x movie or y sensation is worth that number floating around in sales agents’ heads, or look around to decide if the movie is something audiences won’t care about missing…they jump head first into the financial fray.

So what’s gonna happen this year?

The Bubble. That’s what.

Prepare for more of the same, people. A handful of $10M+ pickups of movies that will never make back their costs. It’s the price studios will have to pay for giving into the buzz that fills up that infamous, large, translucent, invisible, impactful, annoying, world-crushing bubble.

Pop!

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