The Sundance Film Festival ended this past weekend and the big business news was the record sale of narrative film Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, going for the crazy-high $17.5 million. Lost in the hoopla was the seemingly equally unprecedented sale of the documentary, Gleason, about a former NFL player who was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 34, for $3 million to Amazon Studios, with Open Road Films co-releasing the film theatrically.

$3 million is a lot for a documentary deal at Sundance. It would be the most, which is why it was surprising to me that more media outlets hadn’t been taking note. I think there’s a reason for that, namely, because the deal wasn’t really for $3 million. The reports were worded in vague industry prose, such as “in the $3 million range after the deal is completed” (Indiewire), and “the collective value of the deal…should be around $3 million” (Deadline).

That sounds like spin. Normally, the amount of the deal is the purchase price for the theatrical rights in the US. But here, if you throw in some other aspects of the deal, such as the prints and advertising commitment, maybe then it gets to $3 million. I honestly don’t know, I couldn’t get Amazon to comment.

Still, it prompted me to take a short walk through Sundance doc deal history. I’d say the excitement for big documentary purchases got hot around 2003 and peaked in 2007, when In the Shadow of the Moon, about NASA’s moon program, was sold to ThinkFilm for more than $2.5 million. The film tanked later that year. Young@Heart was sold to Fox Searchlight the next year for $1.5 million. That film eventually made $4 million, but the studio spent a lot on marketing and I think it would be fair to call it a disappointment.

In the years since, the deals haven’t gone cold but they cooled. Project Nim, which I’ve been told was bought by HBO for $2 million, was one of the exceptions. Other big pickups in the past couple of years have included Blackfish, Pussy Riot, The Summit, Dinosaur 13, Twenty Feet from Stardom and Meru, each of which were reportedly bought for more than $1 million. Other big buys include Searching for Sugar Man, The Queen of Versailles and The Wolfpack. Racing Extinction, which hit Sundance last year, was supposedly bought for more than $2 million as well, putting it the same league with Shadow of the Moon.

This year, in addition to Gleason, there were few big buys, although the active dealing by Amazon and Netflix certainly added spice to the late night maneuvering. Netflix purchased Audrie & Daisy, a parallel story of the sexual assault of two young women, and Author: The JT Leroy Story, for a reported $1 million. As I’ve written before, I’m dying to see the latter, Jeff Feuerzeig’s tale of the woman, Laura Albert, behind the faux truck stop hooker/author.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, which will air on PBS’s American Masters this fall was snapped up for theatrical by Music Box Films and Netflix has exclusive subscription streaming rights. (American Masters Pictures is also putting out Maya Angelou: Still I Rise in theaters later this year.)

The Sundance deals are sliced like a multi-layered cake, as in: theatrical, SVOD (subscription video-on-demand, like Netflix or Amazon), VOD (like iTunes) and television broadcast (PBS, HBO, CNN, etc). And, actually, you can add more layers for international and domestic rights. For example, Weiner, the highly-anticipated film about Anthony Weiner’s failed mayoral campaign after a sexting scandal, was signed to play on Showtime but Hulu stepped in to make a deal so that it has rights to stream the film, which is also being released theatrically by IFC Films.


In more traditional deals with veteran doc supporters, film distributor Sony Pictures Classics picked up Eat That Question—Frank Zappa In His Own Words and The Eagle Huntress. Magnolia nabbed Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World for, I hear, a million or so.

Although the festival has been put to bed, the dealmakers are still up, and new acquisitions are being worked out.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen