The big deals at Sundance: Why the movies sold and how they might succeed

Last year’s Sundance Film Festival saw two of the priciest deals in the history of this gathering: Fox Searchlight’s record-breaking $17.5 million for “The Birth of a Nation” and Amazon/Roadside’s not quite as Brinks-busting $10 million for “Manchester by the Sea.”

Those films wound up with two, well, very different commercial fates. As much as dollars can be an indicator of a film’s value, they’re hardly an ironclad guarantee of success. Too many other factors can enter the picture between the January frenzy in the mountains and the fall derby into which many of these films will enter.

Judging by the totals in Park City this year, buyers are feeling optimistic. Very optimistic. Whether it’s traditional players like Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, newer movers-and-shakers such as Amazon and Netflix or even upstarts like Neon and FilmRise, wallets have been opening up over the last week at Sundance. As of  Monday, a whopping  nine movies have gone for at least $5 million as the quantity of buyers (and, depending on whom you ask, the quality of movies) has sent dollar amounts skyward.

Which movies went for the biggest  totals? And which have the best chance of repeating “Manchester’s” box office and awards feats? We break down those  nine big deals and handicap how they’ll pan out — or at least what studios will need to do to give them the best shot of succeeding.

"Thoroughbred"

Directed by Cory Finley. Focus, $5 million

The Breakdown: Noirish scheming among the rich and disaffected. Teenagers Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) used to be friends. They are slowly becoming reacquainted after Amanda committed a barbaric act (alluded to by the title) and was ostracized for it. Then Amanda learns of a problematic figure in Lily's life and plots to take action. In a modern spin on "Heathers" and "Cruel Intentions" — though with more dark humor and tight directorial control than either — "Thoroughbred" follows their plan as it takes them to a reluctant hit man (a brilliantly slimy-jittery Anton Yelchin) and other self-involved machinations. The film is also one of Yelchin's ‎last roles; debut director Finley dedicates it to him.

Forecast: One of the clear breakouts of the festival, "Thoroughbred" would seem to have it made with critics, who will eat up the noir and the nasty fun. General audiences will be a more complex proposition. Older audiences will go for the careful pacing and sly intelligence, but will they want to see a movie about self-absorbed teens too much in their own heads? The movie could, alternately, appeal to teens and twentysomethings, who will find it in a parable for their own suppressed need for expression. But Focus will need to make some nifty marketing moves to reach them; despite the age and appeal of the cast, the dialogue is often expressed in a kind of stylized formality, while art house touches like a scene backdropped by “Ave Maria” and an upper-crust manor setting can belie the film’s quicker, looser rhythms.

‎“Brigsby Bear”

Directed by Dave McCary. Sony Pictures Classics, $5 million

The breakdown: “Saturday Night Live” cast member Kyle Mooney stars in an offbeat story about a young man returned to his family after living for years with a couple who kidnapped him. He becomes determined to finish making the homemade television program his captors created and showed him for years.

The forecast: The movie’s weird whimsy will require very specific handling in how it is positioned for release, as its sincere sweetness could come off as too cloying for some audiences. Producers on the film include the Lonely Island comedy team and filmmakers Chris Miller and Phil Lord, who have all created unlikely successes, so expect some creative promotion if nothing else.

“Patti Cake$”

Directed by Geremy JasperFox Searchlight, $10.5 million

The breakdown: Music video director Jasper makes his feature debut as writer-director with this crowd-pleasingly ebullient yet bittersweet tale of a young woman aspiring to be a rapper. Set in New Jersey, the film follows Patti — rap name "Killa P" — as she tries to convince everyone around her that she can make it, and struggles to convince herself she deserves success of her own.

The forecast: One of the biggest surprises at Sundance this year, the film won over its premiere audience and sparked the sort of bidding war that not long ago seemed a thing of the past. Whether that same enthusiasm translates to audiences outside the festival world remains to be seen. Searchlight will seek to emulate the Sundance-launched success it had in the past with the likes of “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Little Miss Sunshine” — other movies with quirky and appealing lead characters — but will need to sell a film that at heart is far more of a quiet drama than it might appear. Helping in the endeavor will be the promotional narrative of its star: The film offers a breakout performance of Australian actress Danielle Macdonald in the lead role.

“Step”

Directed by Amanda Lipitz. Fox Searchlight, $5 million.

The breakdown: Deep in urban Baltimore, not far from where Freddie Gray was killed in police custody, sits the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. A charter school whose mission it is to send every alumna to college, the academy is about to graduate its founding class. The women of that class, as Lipitz conveys in this casually observational documentary, are mostly doing well academically while flourishing on a step dance team, though they also face their share of challenges. As their pre-college years unspool, the movie follows‎ their success, their struggles and (to a lesser degree) their attempts to compete in statewide step competitions, as we learn about several of the young women in up-close ways.

The forecast: Documentary sales rarely hit the ‎$5-million threshold. But the currently hot nonfiction market may be changing that. This story has the kind of socially conscious message, inspirational if ultimately benign (there's little questioning of or wading into the controversial premise of charter schools themselves), that can help it appeal to a wide range of viewers. The issue for Searchlight will be convincing them to pay 10 bucks for a documentary, let alone one that doesn't lean on the competition as its organizing principal, ‎and whose personal narratives are in some ways not that different from what's available on a plethora of reality-heavy cable channels.

"Icarus”

Directed by Bryan Fogel.‎ Netflix, $5 million.

The breakdown: Speaking of docs that went for a lot of money, there’s this dive into the world of the Russian athletic doping scandal, produced by the same company as "Step," in fact. Fogel, a comedian and amateur cyclist, is fascinated by the doping scandal of Lance Armstrong and decides to put himself through a similar regimen to see how‎ much it helps. Then he stumbles upon Grigory Rodchenkov. A Russian doping expert eager to help, the chemist seems like a jovial and largely harmless bureaucrat. But Rodchenkov may not be what he appears. To say more here would be to deprive viewers of the pleasures of discovery. The less known about this one, the more enjoyable the experience.

The forecast:‎ With Russian hacking permeating the news, it's hard to imagine a more timely story than this one, also about the Kremlin allegedly skirting the rules to manipulate its way toward a desired result. And Netflix has the global reach to help this story reach millions of people in countries well beyond the U.S. The issue is whether, with so much news on the subject,  people will want to check in for  two more hours about it. And, maybe just as important when it comes to marketing, can those people be induced to see a movie that, though the furthest thing from a dry, talking-head-fest, may read that way to subscribers only casually paying attention?

“To the Bone”

Directed by Marti NoxonNetflix, $8 million

The breakdown: TV veteran Noxon makes her feature debut as writer with the story of a young woman (Lily Collins) struggling with eating disorders. She lands in a group home overseen by an unconventional doctor (Keanu Reeves) and confronts the overlapping issues within her family and herself that cause her self-destructive behavior.

Forecast: Fitting well into the recent trend of young adult dramas,  “To the Bone” helps address the surprising lack of feature films about eating disorders, and should be an active catalog title in the Netflix library. It could also have a modest theatrical life — and possible awards play — for Collins’ lead performance, Reeves’ supporting turn and Noxon’s tonally bold, emotionally earnest screenplay

“Fun Mom Dinner

Directed by Alethea Jones. Netflix and Momentum Pictures, $5 million

The breakdown: Four female friends set aside their usual responsibilities for a fun night out and things get out of hand. The film looks to be a female party comedy and a thoughtful treatise on self-definition when the rest of world wants to reduce you to just one thing and marks the feature debuts for both director Jones and screenwriter Julie Rudd.

The forecast: Presumably looking to ride the wave of success of the recent “Bad Moms,” this film has a strong ensemble in Katie Aselton, Toni Collette, Molly Shannon and Bridget Everett. While the same box-office results may not be in the cards, the film is another that will likely play well as a weekend afternoon home-viewing distraction, and so is well suited to the current streaming ecosystem. 

"The Big Sick”

Directed by Michael Showalter. Amazon, $12 million.

The breakdown: Kumail Nanjiani‎ is known these days for his turn as a droll nerd on "Silicon Valley." But before the Pakistani-born actor moved in with Hendricks, Bachman and the boys, he was a struggling comedian seeking to make a relationship work with now-wife Emily Gordon. Those experiences — and the tension with his family over the intercultural romance — form the basis of the dramatic comedy. The movie, which Nanjiani wrote with Gordon,  alternates seamlessly between gentle pathos and wry comedy, then back again.

Forecast: The reason‎ for the big dollars is obvious: The movie has an up-and-coming star, a name-brand producer in Judd Apatow and a kind of irresistible likability. Indeed, the film arguably played to more laughs and enthusiasm than any other in Park City. But it won't be a slam dunk. Nanjiani is an unknown quantity as a rom-com lead. And the Apatow name could lead some consumers to think they're getting a broader and noisier comedy, resulting in some disappointed opening-weekenders. The key to Amazon making good on its investment will be rolling out the film slowly and letting word-of-mouth build. Any other approach, ‎to invoke Mr. Bachman, would look as bad as a ferret that gave up on itself months ago.

“Mudbound”

Directed by Dee Rees. Netflix, $12.5 million.

The breakdown: Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, Rees’ new film takes a sprawling look at two families in the 1940s-era Jim Crow South: the white McAllan family that owns the farm (members of which are played by Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks and  Garrett Hedlund) and the Jacksons who are sharecroppers on it (Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige and Jason  Mitchell). On this mucky land in the Mississippi Delta, racial politics, World War II flashbacks and family tension all intertwine. Carefully paced for much of its run, the film builds to a dramatic and racially charged conclusion.

The forecast: A historical epic about African Americans and racism made by a black filmmaker sells for a lot of money at Sundance — the obvious comparison point is to 2016’s “The Birth of a Nation.” (In fact, Netflix had made a lavish offer for the Nate Parker movie at last year’s festival before producers opted for Fox Searchlight.) And the questions in that instance — about whether festival enthusiasm will translate to middle America — remain with this film. But the marketing issues will be different from “Birth,” which faced singular challenges owing to Parker’s personal life. The bigger issue here is whether a campaign can build enough critical and awards buzz to induce people to see a slow-burn 130-minute period drama — a particular question for Netflix, which does not have a huge track record with scripted prestige dramas.

@ZeitchikLAT

@IndieFocus

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

mark.olsen@latimes.com

 

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Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

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An earlier version of this story did not include the film "Mudbound." Its inclusion also necessitated minor editing changes throughout.
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