Where ‘Late Night’ flopped, ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ soared.
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival is about to start winding down, which means some of the biggest sales of the festival have already transpired. The new thriller Fair Play was sold to Netflix for $20 million while the new John Carney musical drama Flora and Son was sold to Apple for a similar price. With these hefty sums, these movies get to reflect how much buzz they’ve generated in their Sundance premieres while streamers with deep pockets get to add high-profile titles to their respective 2023 slates. However, just because a movie gets sold for lots of dollars at a film festival doesn’t mean it’ll automatically be a smash hit when it’s released to general moviegoers.
Acquiring independent movies at a film festival is a total gamble, with splashy purchases sometimes resulting in eventual box office bombs and other under-the-radar acquisitions steadily becoming sleeper hits. Nobody knows anything in Hollywood and that’s especially true when it comes to figuring out what film festival darlings will break on through to the general public. Just ask a collection of indie films that were released to theaters back in 2019…
Before we talk about those 2019 features, though, let’s look at film festivals themselves. These are the domain of independent motion pictures, movies with just enough financing to get made, but never enough cash to get distributed across the world. This is where movies like Napoleon Dynamite can premiere with no prior buzz and get snatched up by studios like Fox Searchlight (now known as Searchlight Pictures) for millions of dollars. If you play your cards right as a studio, you’ll be able to pick up a crowdpleaser feature that can dazzle general audiences and award-season voters just like it did with Sundance attendees. History is paved with countless movies that premiered at Sundance before getting mainstream attention, like The Blair Witch Project or Little Miss Sunshine.
Over the years, though, the stakes for acquisitions at big film festivals have increased exponentially. Just restricting our gaze to independent movies picked up at the Sundance Film Festival, the money spent on buzzy titles has gotten incredibly bloated. Back in 2004, Fox Searchlight purchased Napoleon Dynamite for $3 million. Even adjusted for inflation, that would be just $4.8 million in today’s dollars. Things escalated just two years later when the same studio picked up Little Miss Sunshine for $10.5 million. Nowadays, that sum of cash looks restrained compared to Apple spending $25 million on global rights to CODA and the $22 million Hulu shelled out for Palm Springs.
These extravagant numbers reflect streamers wanting to both reinforce their prowess in the cinematic field and compensate creative players in these films for long-term residuals they won’t get for streaming-exclusive fare. As for traditional theatrical titles, these types of films are also spending more cash than ever, but often at a risk. Streamers are built on burning heaps of money, whereas big-screen titles are always under intense scrutiny to be as immediately profitable as possible. For theatrical studios, it’s a lot harder to turn a $15+ million Sundance purchase into something as profitable as Napoleon Dynamite or even Little Miss Sunshine. That truth got reinforced tragically in 2019 when Warner Bros./New Line Cinema shelled out $15 million for distribution rights to Sundance darling Blinded by the Light while Amazon Studios plunked down $13 million for the rights to Late Night.
Blinded by the Light and Late Night immediately had a big problem once the dust had settled on their respective purchases. These two films now had to go into wide release as soon as possible to recoup all that money back. Napoleon Dynamite had the room to gradually build up momentum and word-of-mouth over the summer of 2004. After all, though it wasn't change you'd find beneath a couch cushion, $3 million wasn't a life-or-death sum of cash for Fox Searchlight – it could afford to give the movie room to breathe. Blinded by the Light and Late Night, on the other hand, were two costly acquisitions that needed to make New Line Cinema and Amazon Studios their cash back immediately.
Blinded by the Light had the specifcal problem of being released by a studio that dabbled almost exclusively in mainstream genre fare rather than arthouse cinema. Whereas a Focus Features or A24 would know how to release Blinded by the Light properly, New Line Cinema just bought the film up with a lot of cash and then opted to release it in an instant wide theatrical release like it was just another mainstream movie on its slate. Similarly, Late Night was an early stab at Amazon Studios self-distributing its own studios. Prior Sundance acquisitions from Amazon like Manchester By the Sea and The Big Sick were distributed by studios with extensive experience of launching Sundance hits into the mainstream, whereas Amazon's marketing and distribution team were still getting their feet wet.
The hope here from these studios was that all the buzz these two movies got in their Sundance premieres would immediately be felt by mainstream moviegoers. These films had worked like gangbusters at their world premieres, surely they could also catch on like wildfire with the general public. Instead, Late Night, after one week of limited release, expanded into over 2,000 locations and promptly crashed and burned. Blinded by the Light also did awful in its North American launch and neither one of these films stuck around as word-of-mouth hits. Spending all that cash to acquire these films made for attention-grabbing headlines back when the Sundance Film Festival was going on. However, now it looked like a foolhardy instance of studios trying to outdo one another rather than looking out for the best interests of the movies themselves. Spending all that cash just inspired awkward release strategies from these studios while gravitating towards the studio with the deepest pockets didn't help these indie movies reach as wide of an audience as possible.
However, despite the troubles faced by this pair of movies, film festival acquisitions weren’t totally down for the count in 2019. In fact, the same month Blinded by the Light premiered in general release, another indie title was beginning to make its way into theaters and pick up box office steam…
Film acquisitions at Sundance garner a lot of attention from the entertainment press, but acquisitions at other festivals tend to get significantly less hype. When A24 picked up Aftersun after its Cannes Film Festival 2022 premiere, for instance, there wasn't even a specific number released for how much it was purchased for (though it was reportedly something in the $4-7 million range), let alone a deluge of articles examining the ramifications of this purchase. Similarly, The Peanut Butter Falcon was picked up for distribution by Roadside Attractions about two months after its South by Southwest 2019 premiere. There was no specific number released for how much Roadside paid for the movie and, given the low-key nature of Roadside Attractions, there wasn’t much in the way of lofty box office expectations for this title.
Then a funny thing happened. The Peanut Butter Falcon took off in a big way at the domestic box office, especially in rural states like Texas. It eventually went on to crack $20 million in North America, leaving pricier Sundance buys like Late Night in the dust. By spending nimbly and looking for crowdpleaser movies in festivals beyond Sundance, Roadside had scored a big crossover hit. Similarly, that same year, The Farewell was acquired by A24 for $7 million after its Sundance 2019 premiere, with director Lulu Wang opting to go with this studio rather than take a $15 million offer from Netflix. The pricetag was smaller, but Wang saw that the more important thing here was finding The Farewell a home that would give it love and attention. Going this route paid off, as The Farewell became a summertime indie hit and, like The Peanut Butter Falcon, also outgrossed Late Night and Blinded by the Light domestically.
The biggest takeaway from the box office performances of these assorted 2019 film festival darlings is simple: you never can tell what’s going to cross over and what isn’t. Studios spend tens of millions at Sundance each year hoping they’ve found the next Napoleon Dynamite, but it can turn out you’ve just spent all that money to get the next Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl instead. In figuring out how to navigate the always fluctuating and unpredictable world of indie cinema, it’d be wise for studios to remember the value of smart rather than exorbitant spending. Plus, it couldn’t hurt to take a cue from The Peanut Butter Falcon and look around at other festivals beyond Sundance for where the next potential indie sleeper hit could be lurking.
Releasing films theatrically is always a gamble in terms of whether or not you’ll reach profitability, but if 2019’s indie movie scene proved anything, it’s that spending every dollar possible is not a way of automatically removing all that financial uncertainty.
Douglas Laman is a life-long movie fan, writer and Rotten Tomatoes approved critic whose writing has been published in outlets like The Mary Sue, Fangoria, The Spool, and ScarleTeen. Residing both on the Autism spectrum and in Texas, Doug adores pugs, showtunes, the Wes Anderson movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, and any music by Carly Rae Jepsen.