Sundance 2015: The Year Everyone Stopped Caring About The FIlms

February 3, 2015

Sundance used to be all about the films. It was the place where eager studios and distributors clamored for premiere tickets so they could be the first to lob seven-figure bids at the festival’s darlings. The careers of countless filmmakers have been made on a single screening at a single Sundance. Every year there’s a group of award-circuit nominations and wins for actors, writers, directors, and films that got their start among the snowy hills of Park City, Utah.

2015 was the year all of that changed.

Not to say that there wasn’t any check-writing, or that some of the films that screened won’t break out into the pop-culture consciousness. In fact, this year has been the best in recent memory on a pure deal-making level. Competition was fierce, and the money came in deluges for dozens of films. “The Witch,” “Dope,” “Me Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Mistress America,” “The End of the Tour,” “The Bronze,” “Brooklyn,” and “Diary of a Teenage Girl” are just a few of the titles that sold for millions, among the record number of distributors vying for content.

However, while the festival still handed out awards and distributors still splashed cash to purchase the latest indie wünderkind, the reason that 2015 will be seen as a watershed year is because the films ceased being important. 2015 was the year that tech finally ate the festival.

This came in two very prominent ways. The first of which is the presence of virtual reality. Once seen as a sci-fi futurist “never going to happen” plaything, VR has finally arrived. With countless devices, from the groundbreaking Oculus Rift to the entry-level Google Cardboard, VR finally moved from experimental lab to glimpsing the potential for radically altering the language of visual storytelling. While most of the VR films — maybe “experiences” is a better word — played in the Sundance NEXT sidebar and didn’t get the attention of splashier film deals, it’s inarguably the future. Sundance has always been a playground for storytelling, and VR represents the next evolution of this exploration.

Oculus announced Oculus Story Studio, a VR storytelling studio that debuted its first CGI VR short, “Lost,” (photo above) and promises five more titles soon. Oculus has billions of dollars at their disposal, thanks to a $2 billion dollar acquisition by Facebook, and is now onboarding Hollywood talent like Saschka Unseld, formerly of Pixar, and “Maleficent” director Robert Stromberg. There has also been a lengthy courting phase in Hollywood, with filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and James Cameron all said to be interested in crafting stories with the new technology. Filmmaker Chris Milk also debuted his new VR experience, “Clouds Over Sidra,” and announced his VR studio VRSE, with financial backing from Annapurna Pictures billionaire scion Megan Ellison:

“It’s a partnership to develop the language of narrative storytelling in virtual reality,” Milk says. “We’re going to help filmmakers—some of them well-known, some of them not well-known at all—explore the medium and try to figure out how to tell a compelling story to human beings. It’s a big challenge and it’s going to take a lot of trial-and-error, but that’s the goal.”

Film has been around for well over a hundred years, allowing the language of the medium to mature and codify. How films are shot and edited, and how audiences engage with them, has been studied, dissected, practiced, taught, experimented with and formalized, from Eadweard Muybridge’s tinkerings up to present day. Virtual reality, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a full alphabet for its new language, let alone words or phrases. Things like editing, camera angles, sound, point of view and perspective — and the types of stories one can tell — are all just starting to come into focus. This is the sandbox phase. Best Buy is about to start selling Samsung Gear VR, which is the first widely commercially available VR headset, with a commercial version for the Oculus Rift set to follow suit later this year.

Platforms are being developed, content is being made, stories are being told, and the language of VR is starting to take shape. In 15 to 20 years, Sundance 2015 might be the point where we look back at the first VR films like we do the Lumiére Brothers’ “Training Pulling into the Station”: a crude, yet crucial sketch of the power of a transformative, nascent medium.

The second reason Sundance 2015 won’t be remembered for the films themselves: It was the first year Amazon and Netflix came to town. While the tech giants have long been throwing their weight around in the TV realm, both have long expressed a desire to get into the feature-film business as well. Amazon recently hired veteran indie producer Ted Hope to run their feature-film business, where they hope to finance and release 12 movies a year, with budgets ranging from $5 million to $25 million. Netflix recently announced separate four-film deals with Adam Sandler and The Duplass Brothers, in addition to the documentaries they’ve already been successfully acquiring. This is in addition to the $3-4 billion a year they plan to spend on content creation and acquisition.

So it was no secret that Amazon and Netflix were flush with cash and ready to spend. They were involved in the bidding for a number of titles, with Netflix even being the high bidder for opening-night title “The Bronze” at over $5M. However, both walked away empty-handed. Yes, even the these mighty billion-dollar behemoths couldn’t convince filmmakers to sign on the dotted line. Why? A few things.

The first is theatrical distribution. Netflix and Amazon’s plans both involve getting new feature films from theaters to streaming as fast as possible —  as little as 30 days in most cases. This is far shorter than normal — so much so that it causes theatre chains with muscle to toss around to refuse to show them unless they have a more standard, 90-plus-day window. Without big chains, Netflix and Amazon are left with only the independent theatre chains and theatrical distribution numbering in the 300-500 screen range. Focus, Searchlight, Weinstein Co, and Relativity can all offer 3,000-plus screens.

Next is probably the prestige factor. They want to have a big release and feel like an important filmmaker, but they also want to be in the capable hands of people who can win Oscars. Weinstein Co., Focus, and Searchlight are all pros at running successful Oscar campaigns for their Sundance acquisitions. There is also probably a question of financial upside, as theatrically released films have the possibility to really “break out”. With so much money at their disposal, though, Netflix and Amazon won’t have any problem matching or surpassing equivalent financial incentives.

So while Amazon and Netflix made big plays at Sundance and lost, they aren’t out of the game. They’ll move from Sundance to Berlin, then Cannes, and every other festival from here on out. They’ve become one of the preeminent buyers, and distributors of independent films and filmmakers will trust them more and more. Worries will disappear, financial upside will be proven, distribution strategies will become more obvious.

These two trends are still just in their infancy. They will continue to grow and mature, becoming nearly ubiquitous. When we look back in 5, 10, or 25 years, though, Sundance 2015 will be seen as a major milestone in the evolution of content and storytelling.