Both Netflix and Amazon made a resounding splash last year at the Sundance Film Festival, with high-priced acquisitions that are still maintaining their profile a year later. Netflix picked up "Mudbound," which has been gaining momentum in awards races, for $12.5 million. "The Big Sick," now also an awards contender, was picked up by Amazon for $12 million and went on to make more than $42 million.
And Netflix scored bragging rights when the company's offbeat comedic thriller "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," which premiered on the festival's opening night last year, went on to win the Grand Jury Prize. It appeared on the streaming service less than a month later.
This year, both companies looked to have an outsize effect even before Sundance kicked off Thursday night.
Netflix came into the festival with narrative feature "Private Life" — one of this year's opening night selections — from writer-director Tamara Jenkins, as well as Joshua Marston's "Come Sunday" and David Wain's "A Futile and Stupid Gesture."
The company also has a number of documentaries in the festival program, including the feature "Seeing Allred," directed by Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman, the series "Wild Wild Country," directed by Chapman Way and Maclain Way, and the shorts "The Trader," directed by Tamta Gabrichidze, and "End Game," directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
Amazon's presence at the festival is led by Gus Van Sant's "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot" and Lauren Greenfield's documentary "Generation Wealth" — both of which have world premieres — and Lynne Ramsay's Cannes-launched "You Were Never Really Here" in its American debut.
For all the emphasis on the disruption of industry norms by Netflix in particular, said Ian Bricke, director of content acquisitions at the company, Netflix views a festival like Sundance much as a more traditional distributor does — as both a launching pad for titles and a vehicle for discovering new movies to acquire and new filmmakers to work with in the future.
"It's probably more alike than it is different," said Bricke, comparing Netflix's approach to that of other distributors.
Last year, the company acquired a number of titles out of the festival on both the fiction and documentary sides, including Dee Rees' "Mudbound" and Marti Noxon's "To the Bone." This year, Netflix will release "A Futile and Stupid Gesture" on its streaming platform just days after its Sundance premiere. The company plans to wait to release "Private Life" until sometime later in the year, possibly with other festival appearances along the way.
Despite Netflix's emphasis on launching titles on its global streaming platform, a raucous, enthusiastic screening in front of an audience at somewhere like the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah — Sundance's largest venue — still plays a role in influencing decisions and strategy.
"Certainly, the things that matter to filmmakers are they want to make movies how they want to make them, having their movie seen by as many people as possible and then having their movies sort of live in the culture," said Bricke. "And festivals are a key piece of that last component.
"For the right movie at the right festival at the right time, there is no more impactful or exciting or better way to connect with an audience. A great crowded screening at the Eccles — there's nothing like it."
Van Sant will be hoping for just such a response when he returns to the festival to premiere "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot," starring Joaquin Phoenix. Amazon Studios is scheduled to release the film, based on the memoir of cartoonist John Callahan, in May.
Perhaps because Amazon — unlike Netflix — prioritizes a traditional theatrical opening ahead of release on its streaming service, it has frequently partnered with veteran independent filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Todd Haynes and Richard Linklater. (Amazon studio executives declined to comment on their strategies ahead of the festival.)
Although this is Van Sant's first picture with Amazon, he has a long relationship with Sundance beyond simply as a filmmaker, having been on the jury and appearing for talks and retrospective screenings. His 2002 movie "Gerry" is his only previous film to have premiered in Park City, and "Don't Worry" will bow in the same theater.
Van Sant's debut feature, 1986's "Mala Noche," was in fact rejected by the festival at the time. (It would eventually screen at the festival in 2006.)
"My actual relationship is partly just growing up with Sundance as an institution," said Van Sant. "There were a few times I went just to go to the festival, and to ski. So I have been there quite a bit."
For Netflix, with ambitious plans to release 80 original films in 2018, festivals remain a key component of its overall strategy — and something Bricke believes is ideally suited to the company's commitment to giving subscribers instant access to content.
"The festival conversation — whether it's 'Mudbound' at Sundance, 'Gerald's Game' at Fantastic Fest or 'Okja' at Cannes — obviously, the reach of that conversation is way broader and deeper than any kind of traditional marketing or traditional theatrical release apparatus," said Bricke.
"There are strong cases to be made for all models of release, but that's the thing we are uniquely suited to and do uniquely well. Taking the rocket fuel of excitement around a festival launch and delivering on it right away, not waiting, but leaning into that."