Sundance panel talks the difficulty of making a splash in streaming |

Sundance panel talks the difficulty of making a splash in streaming

The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, right, poses another question to the panel during "Hitmaking in the Age of Streaming" at the Acura Festival Village on Swede Alley on Saturday, January 26, 2019. Thompson, author of "Hit Makers: How to Succeed in the Age of Distraction," talked with a panel about creating entertainment’s next big thing in today’s attention-challenged world. (Tanzi Propst/Park Record)
Tanzi Propst

Sundance Film Festival

When: Through Feb. 3

Where: Park City, Salt Lake City, Sundance Resort


Streaming services and emerging formats like podcastinghave created a mountain of opportunities for entertainment and pop-culture fans to watch their favorite films and TV programs.

Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, raised the question of whether that’s too much of a good thing for consumers as he moderated a panel titled “Hitmaking in the Age of Streaming” at the Sundance Film Festival’s Acura Village last Saturday. He compared it to a large tower of unread books, called “tsundoku” in Japanese.

“I think we all live in the shadow of a multimedia tsundoku,” Thompson said. “We all have a mountain of movies we want to see. We have podcasts we want to listen to. We have articles that we want to read. And there is a sense of anxiety about the sheer amount of stuff that is out there.”

And while consumers can feel overwhelmed by these outlets, the panel discussed how different parts of the entertainment ecosystem – artists, financiers and promoters – address that anxiety in order to reach their consumers.

Producer Dan Cogan, Dolly Turner, cofounder of Blackhouse a nonprofit that supports African American film professionals and Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List, a resource of unproduced screenplays, joined Thompson onstage.Thompson illustrated the “age of abundance” in media with the figures, which are staggering by any measure. Netflix is projected to spend $14 billion on content in the near future, while Amazon set a festival record when it snapped up Mindy Kaling-helmed comedy “Late Night” for $13 million.

“Ten years from now, will we look back and say that this was the tip of the content spending bubble, or is this the new normal?” He asked.

Cogan said he didn’t think anyone knows that answer.

“I do think we’re in a moment of evolution, where these giant brands are trying to establish themselves,” he said. “You have competition from Netflix to Amazon to Disney; the biggest companies in entertainment who are trying to become a place (consumers go to watch content). But once things get established and everyone knows where they sit, I think you will see a decline of spending.”

The rise of these streaming platforms has also changed the marketplace for movies and TV shows, especially documentaries, Cogan said.

“I think Netflix, in particular, has completely and entirely changed the game, because when they started to build Netflix, they built it through licensing by buying and enormous amount of films,” he said. “We saw this huge upsurge in the number of documentaries that could reach people in their own homes. And then they started making original films and buying other films at a very high level.”

Last year, four documentaries – Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers,” Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG” and Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Free Solo” – made more than $10 million at the U.S. box office, according to Cogan. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” went on to gross about $20 million.

“I think we had between 10 to 12 other documentaries that made more than $1 million, and that’s unheard of,” he said. “Even though some of those weren’t Netflix films, I think we need to thank Netflix for radically increasing the audience for nonfiction films.”

Turner, who also worked in the music industry during its digital transition, said filmmakers and investors still need to use caution when agreeing to buy into a documentary.

“One of the things that concerns me is while the appetite for documentaries is increasing, it takes a very long time to make them,” she said. “It also takes quite a lot of money.”

Consequently, Turner sees that filmmakers and distributors are not getting the most of the returns.

“With the plethora of opportunities where you can distribute your film, as what happened in the music business, digital formats depressed the price of content,” she said.

Cogan disagreed, saying digital formats expand the audience and pool of the money available for documentary filmmakers.

“I think the key is knowing the film you’re making and the value it has in the marketplace,” he said. “There are films that should be made at $2 million because they can command the marketplace. And there are extraordinary films that should be made at $200,000.”

Cogan pointed to Talal Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons,” which follows a the radicalization of a Muslim family, over a two-year period.

The film won last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize and has been nominated for a Documentary Feature Academy Award this year.

“The film was made for less than $300,000, because its audience wasn’t that huge,” he said.

Even films that see success like “Fathers” are a challenge to promote because of the abundance of choices that are available to the viewer. Millennials, a growing market, have illustrated a trend toward disinterest in marketing,Thompson said.

“How do you reach that generation,” He asked.

In response, Turner suggested weighing whether or not to invest in one or more marketers, and to combine traditional and emerging media and communications platforms such as email, podcasts and social media.

“Over time, we have seen companies decrease the time and money that they are willing to spend or give a film or television show to gain traction, so we must think about how much it will cost to reach our consumers,” she said.

Turner cited Alex Gibney’s 2014documentary “Finding Fela,” which premiered at Sundance in 2014.

“It just so happened the producer invested some additional money (in other marketing),” she said. “The distributor gave us a two-week theatrical release, but because the producers invested properly, we were able to take the film to 60 markets. And those markets created more success for the DVD and digital platforms. So I think investment makes a big difference.”

Switching gears, Thompson asked how the rise in popularity of documentaries has affected screenwriters.

Leonard said he’s interested in seeing what kinds of international writers and filmmakers emerge, encouraged by the diversity shift in the entertainment market.

“If you look at the movies and television series (Netflix distributes), there is far more diversity, inclusion and equity than other broadcast networks or cable networks,” he said. “Netflix, as we know, is the most data-driven and analytics-driven company in Hollywood, and they decided to aggressively lead into voices and content that is not given by the white, male American perspective.”

Leonard cited Netflix’s distribution of ‘Mudbound,’ ‘13th’ and ‘Roma” as examples of this change.

“You’ll note there is not a single white male American director or perspective in those films,” he said. “It’s not because of charity. They are doing it because it will make them more money. And I, for one as a person working in the film industry who happens not to be white, and as a consumer who likes content from all around the world, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, I’m excited about what’s coming.”