By Piya Sinha-Roy
PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - After years of frenzied bidding wars driven by digital giants like Amazon and Netflix, a more subdued market greeted buyers at the Sundance Film Festival this week, with more traditional theatrical distributors snagging the buzziest films.
The most active buyers at the 10-day Park City, Utah, film festival, regarded as the premiere hunting ground for awards-worthy independent fare, were companies committed to bringing films to theaters.
A year ago, Amazon.com Inc and Netflix Inc grabbed headlines by paying high prices for numerous much-hyped films. This year, both streaming platforms showcased films at the festival, but so far have not made any acquisitions.
Instead, relative newcomers to the market, such as Neon, the studio behind Oscar-nominated "I, Tonya," dropped a reported $10 million with the Russo Brothers' AGBO for female-driven horror film "Assassination Nation."
Bleecker Street and 30West bought Keira Knightley's "Colette" for a reported $5 million, Lionsgate snapped up opening night film "Blindspotting," starring "Hamilton" actor Daveed Diggs, and The Orchard and MoviePass bought heist drama "American Animals."
So far, there are no reported price tags as high as the $12.5 million Netflix paid for "Mudbound" or the $12 million Amazon shelled out for "The Big Sick" in 2017. Both films scored Oscar nominations this week.
"People are being more careful because they are looking for a certain kind of movie meant for them and they are also buying all year round," said David Linde, chief executive officer of Participant Media, which with Magnolia Pictures bought theatrical rights to the CNN Films documentary "RBG," about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Producer Harvey Weinstein, who was regarded as a Sundance tastemaker, was absent from the festival this year following his firing from the Weinstein Co after more than 70 women accused him of sexual harassment or assault, allegations that spanned three decades. He has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.
Meanwhile, the independent film industry has seen a reshuffle within its ranks as new digital and independent players emerge, competing with veterans such as Fox Searchlight, Comcast Corp's Focus Features and Sony Pictures Classics, which have ushered Sundance movies to Oscars success by releasing them first only in theaters. Netflix has departed from this tradition, putting movies on its streaming service the same day they debut in a small number of theaters.
"Our advantage is being able to walk into a movie and walk out and say, 'Yes, we can buy it,' and know what we think is the path for the film," said Tom Bernard, who co-founded Sony Pictures Classics with Michael Barker.
The studio acquired Oscar-nominated gay romance "Call Me By Your Name" ahead of last year's Sundance and debuted it at the festival.
"We only buy movies we think we can make work in that marketplace so we look for movies that are theatrically driven," Bernard added.
Filmmakers bringing their features and documentaries to Sundance have a plethora of distribution models available to choose from between theatrical and streaming platforms.
Reed Morano, the Emmy-winning director of Hulu series "The Handmaid's Tale," debuted her first directorial feature, "I Think We're Alone Now," at Sundance this year. The film is still up for sale.
"I don't think this movie is for streaming at all. It can go there eventually, but the movie is about the theatrical experience," Morano told Reuters.
For movies that do not find buyers, there's at least one offer on the table. Amazon Video Direct offers all filmmakers at Sundance between $5,000 and $200,000 they can use to secure a theatrical release, as long as they stream the film on Amazon exclusively for two years after any theatrical release. The filmmakers also receive royalties per stream.
Since launching the initiative a year ago, Amazon Video Direct has spent more than $9.5 million on acquiring around 175 films from four festivals, including 15 from last year's Sundance.
"We saw it as an opportunity ... to help those filmmakers that may not have those other options get their content in front of a premium audience like Amazon," said Eric Orme, director of Amazon Video Direct.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)