Sundance Buyers Are Ready to Feed Theaters. Here’s What That Could Mean at the Box Office

This year, Sundance saw big deals go down for “A Real Pain” (Searchlight, $10 million), “It’s What’s Inside” (Netflix, $17 million), “Presence” (Neon), and “My Old Ass” (Amazon/MGM, $15 million) as well as smaller acquisitions for “Kneecap” (Sony Pictures Classics), “Ghostlight” (IFC Films), and “Ibelin”(Netflix).

It’s not the same bull market as the old days, but we’ll take it. And while streamers made their presence felt with the two largest acquisitions to date, it’s clear that for most of these films theatrical will be part of their lifecycles. But is that a smart move?

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Based on last year’s results, the answer is: Could be. Domestic box office from all Sundance 2023 films was the best for any year since Covid. At around $100 million, it quadrupled the take from 2022 Festival titles (around $25 million). All told, about two thirds of the 2023 films have some sort of domestic distribution, including streaming outlets. Of these, about a dozen films have yet to open.

An improvement, if well short of the old normal. When the Sundance slate grossed $125 million in 2019, it was considered an off year. The two prior years had a combined total of around $500 million.

Last year’s $100 million happened even though three of the top acquisitions missed meaningful theatrical play. Netflix bought “Fair Play” for around $20 million, Apple acquired “Flora and Son” for a little less, with a token (and unreported) release before streaming. As usual, the return on investment for streamers is opaque. “Fair Play” had three days at #1 at Netflix, but fell off the top 10 after eight days. “Flora and Son” initially led Apple TV’s movies.

Searchlight also bought “Magazine Dreams.” It planned an Oscar campaign, only to take the film off the calendar and return the rights to the filmmakers in the wake of star Jonathan Majors’ assault conviction.

Nearly half of the 2023 Sundance box office came from one title. A24’s purchase of the Australian horror film “Talk to Me” for under $10 million led to a $48 million domestic total, the company’s #2 performer for the year. Months after the festival, Pantelion acquired “Radical” (Premiere) starring Eugenio Derbez. Based on the true story of Sergio Juárez Correa, a teacher in Matamoros, Mexico who unlocked unseen potential in his students, it grossed just under $9 million and more than double that worldwide, primarily in Mexico. Searchlight acquired “Theater Camp” during the festival for around $8 million, with a $4 million gross. Neon bought “Eileen;” the noir thriller starring Anne Hathaway grossed only $1.4 million.

PAST LIVES, from left: Teo YOO, Greta Lee, 2023. ph: Jon Pack / © A24 / courtesy Everett Collection
“Past Lives”Courtesy Everett Collection

A24 came to Sundance with “Past Lives,” now an Oscar nominee for Best Picture and Original Screenplay. In a challenged environment for specialized dramas, its gross over $10 million was made even more impressive by its summer release.

Other films that came to Sundance 2023 with distributors in place were “Infinity Pool” (Neon, $5.1 million), “You Hurt My Feelings” (A24, $4.8 million), “The Amazing Maurice” (Viva, $4.3 million), “A Thousand and One” (Focus, $3.4 million), and “Polite Society” (Focus, $1.6 million).

Some of the most acclaimed titles failed to reach $1 million, including “Passages” (MUBI), “The Persian Version” (Sony Pictures Classics), “Earth Mama” (A24), “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” (A24), “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Magnolia), and “Kokomo City” (Magnolia). However, with lower production costs, foreign rights, home viewing outlets, and other revenue streams, they still may have found success outside theaters.

Could there be another “Talk to Me” within this year’s acquisitions? At first glance, it seems unlikely. Sundance buzz was high around horror debut “It’s What’s Inside,” but Netflix was the winning bidder. Perhaps “A Real Pain” could be a top performer — it won the festival’s Waldo Salt screenplay award and is earning a reputation as a crowdpleaser. However, it’s also a comedy in which writer-director Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin play two friends on a tour of Polish Holocaust sites.

Perhaps the best hope lies in a number of films finding a robust theatrical life. There are promising titles like the brilliant and ballistic musical origin story “Kneecap,” psychedelic coming-of-ager “My Old Ass,” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Presence.” Much will depend on how much their buyers are willing to stake on the always-uncertain theatrical rollout.

Dana Harris-Bridson contributed to this report.

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