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For Indie Studios, Sundance Kicks Off a Year of Experimentation
Sundance 2021: “Why not try putting your film out in 10 cities instead of two on the first weekend and get more word of mouth?” one executive tells TheWrap
For indie studios, 2021 is truly underway now that Sundance has arrived, even if the pandemic has forced the annual Utah event to go virtual. And distributors face a dual challenge: play the waiting game when it comes to theatrical releases or experiment with alternate distribution models.
Sales agents and distribution execs tell TheWrap that Sundance 2021 will likely be a streamers’ market thanks to the pandemic keeping theaters closed and companies like Hulu continuing to put up big bids as they have for films like last year’s “Palm Springs,” which Hulu and Neon teamed up to buy for a record-breaking $17.5 million. But if any film does get bought by a theatrical distributor, it may be up to a full year before it hits theaters, depending on whether or not the studio wants to place it in the awards race.
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“No film’s needs are the same, but with every film, you want to have your plan in place for releasing at least two to three months out,” one distributor told TheWrap. “At least in the short term, streaming or day-and-date is going to be probably the best option.”
Even in the fall, when epidemiologists think that the U.S. may be able to reach herd immunity, only the highest-profile indie titles may attempt to release in theaters because of the crowd of films that could flood the market in the fourth quarter. While it’s not clear yet how high the demand for moviegoing will be in the first few post-pandemic months, it may be better for some smaller films to wait for the theatrical market to truly return to normal instead of entering theaters at a time when audiences might be looking for the biggest blockbusters.
Despite all the unknowns, the current climate also provides indie studios opportunities to experiment with release strategies. That’s especially true since the two crucial markets of Los Angeles and New York City are likely to be among the last to reopen their theaters. (Both cities kept theaters shut down when Warner Bros. released Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” last September, which helped depress the Warner Bros. film’s domestic box office to under $60 million.)
This is a particular snag for indie films as many of them start their theatrical runs with a four-screen, L.A./NYC platform release before expanding to the top 10 markets and then continuing to roll out nationwide. Instead of waiting for those cities to reopen, some indie distributors think that the first wave of post-pandemic specialty films may instead release on 50-100 screens in top ten markets and then expand from there. If that proves successful, the four-screen platform strategy could become a thing of the past.
“The opening weekend has become bigger for most films. You want to get off on the right foot,” one exec said. “That isn’t necessarily the case for indie films and awards contenders because they could leg out really well, especially if you’re going wide during Oscar season. But why not try putting your film out in 10 cities instead of two on the first weekend and get more word of mouth?”
And there’s also the different deals that theatrical distributors and streamers have made with each other, many of which have proven to be invaluable during the pandemic and which one sales agent predicts will pave the way for the next decade of deals made at Sundance and other festivals.
“Neon has a lot of options and can buy movies outright themselves, and they can partner with Hulu,” the agent said. “Sony Pictures Classics and Bleecker Street are flipping movies to streamers too. The blinds are lifted. The light is shining through and there are a lot of ways to get movies out there that aren’t traditional.”
Beatrice Verhoeven contributed to this report.