YouTube got odd looks when it began showing up at the Sundance Film Festival five years ago.
This year, nobody bats an eye.
"YouTube, Netflix and others investing in digital creations [means] the output is on par with what is coming out of Hollywood," said Jamie Byrne, director of creators for YouTube, which screened its first original movie at Sundance this year and has sponsored the fest's short-film program for half a decade. "Digital creators are getting seen."
For 33 years, the movie industry has come to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, to show off some of its shiniest independent films. Bidders come to land the rights to next year's Oscars catnip. Thanks to online video companies' swelling budgets and to consumers watching more media online, the distinction between films made for the big screen and those destined for a touchscreen is fading away. And this year, Sundance saw digital upstarts grab leading roles.
For starters, Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and others screened more projects at the fest this year than online natives have ever before. In addition, this year's programming played right into digital bidders' hands. Traditional buyers, hunting for movies with both critical praise and mainstream appeal, complained the latest slate of movies was "aggressively uncommercial" -- with little mass-market appeal. Online companies, on the other hand, tend to delight in titles that resonate with niche audiences, so Sundance provided them with plenty of projects ripe for the picking.
From screen to stream
Netflix, with its $6 billion content budget, tends to have the greatest number of original titles on offer. This year the company screened eight, the most it's ever shown. (That includes the buzzy sci-fi original "The Discovery," which also happens to star the Sundance Institute's own president and founder, Robert Redford.)
But rivals exhibited more at Sundance this year, too.
Chief competitor Amazon presented the first three episodes of its original series "I Love Dick," made by the same team behind the tech giant's critical darling "Transparent."
YouTube debuted the documentary "This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous," which tracks the transgender transition of the YouTube star of the title. Its director, Barbara Kopple, has won two best documentary Oscars in her 40-year career.
And "Snatchers," a sci-fi comedy about a teen who wakes up to discover she's nine-months pregnant with an alien, premiered eight of its short-form episodes. It was produced by digital content platform Stage 13.
Sundance even awarded its most competitive honor -- the Grand Jury Prize for a US fiction film -- to Netflix's thriller "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore."
But digital upstarts tend to make the most headlines at Sundance for the big bids they make.
Before 2016, many of Netflix's and Amazon's overtures had been rebuffed because filmmakers were skittish about downgrading cinemas in their release strategies. That changed last year, when both companies made some of the fest's biggest bids, including Amazon's $10 million buy of "Manchester by the Sea," the second biggest deal of the year.
"You always want your film to be shown on a big screen with perfect sound and the best projection," Sian Heder, a writer and director who sold his film "Tallulah" to Netflix that year, told The New York Times at the time. "But that's not always the reality anymore. The way that people consume media is changing."
The "Manchester by the Sea" gamble paid off in prestige: This week, it became the first movie attached to a streaming service to nab a best picture Oscar nomination.
Netflix bought rights to at least six projects at this year's festival, more than any other single buyer. That includes a reported $5 million deal for the documentary "Icarus," about Russia's doping of athletes. That would make it the highest reported amount for a nonfiction film of this -- and possibly any -- previous Sundance. (Not all deals at Sundance have dollar figures attached.)
But Amazon looks to have grabbed this year's superlative: Its $12 million acquisition of "The Big Sick," a comedy starring "Silicon Valley" actor Kumail Nanjiani, is the largest so far. Amazon also bought rights to three other films.
Smaller companies are also stepping up to the bargaining table.
Gunpowder & Sky, a digital-media studio launched last year, bought the rights to "The Little Hours," a feature-length comedy about fake nuns. The movie will be the studio's first theatrical release since it acquired indie film distributor FilmBuff in September.
This year, some of the digital upstarts' deals are already proving wise bets. Amazon acquisition "Crown Heights" took home the Audience Award for US fiction movies.
Netflix nabbed both winners of the documentary Audience Awards: "Chasing Coral" for US docs and "Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower" for international entries. The documentary jury even created a new award -- the Orwell Award, to "recognize a film that reveals the truth" at a time of "post-truth, doublespeak, and alternative facts," according to the festival -- and presented it to "Icarus," the big-ticket Netflix acquisition.
Distribution deals can often feel like insider minutiae, yet Netflix, Amazon and companies like them have transformed documentaries, said Susan Froemke, a producer and director of Oscar- and Emmy-winning films.
"Netflix or Amazon -- companies with a lot of resources -- make [documentaries] a very different environment to work in," she said. Where the pool of potential backers was once limited to the likes of PBS or HBO, funding from the likes of Netflix and Amazon has now pushed the format to wider audiences.
"It has opened up a whole new world," she said.
First published Jan. 28, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, Jan. 30, 8:15 a.m. PT: Adds details of Sundance award winners.
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