This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
As I sit down on the 47th day of January to write this newsletter, self-diagnosing every cough as the coronavirus, I am returning from the Sundance Film Festival.
It was delightful. I saw 23 movies, wrote something like 11 stories, disregarded superfluous concepts such as “knowing what day of the week it is,” and watched Jeff Probst have a conversation with Dave Grohl at a party while I had a slice of pizza in one hand and a glass of white wine in the other.
By all accounts, it was a dream.
If I had to choose the most memorable thing I saw at this year’s festival, it would have to be my life flash in front of my eyes as a woman backed an SUV the size of a battleship directly into me while she was texting on her phone. What a film it was, too: Inspiring, dramatic, bitingly humorous, and sexually uncomfortable.
As for the time spent in the cinemas, there were outstanding documentaries—Dick Johnson Is Dead just about exploded my heart into a million pieces—and Minari, The Father, and Promising Young Woman were easily the narrative standouts.
But “follow the money!” I’m pretty sure some person said once, and at Sundance that means tracking what the biggest distribution deals are. This year two films set new Park City records. What a treat, I saw them both: Palm Springs and Boys State.
At an independent film festival where people can sometimes be so thrilled and invigorated to be witnessing audacious, if occasionally peculiar and difficult cinema, these films happen to be two of the most base-level likable ones that played. That’s likely why they scored so much money. (Look at me, throwing out astute, expert-level industry business insights.)
Palm Springs is a romantic comedy starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, produced by Samberg’s Lonely Island buddies. The leads play two people disillusioned by love who unexpectedly grow close over the course of a wedding in Palm Springs. There’s a massive, Groundhog Day-evoking twist that instantly transports this from cute rom-com to high-concept deconstruction of a rom-com that illuminates our need for connection—of course, filtered through the wily charms of Lonely Island.
The movie sold to Neon and Hulu in a joint theatrical-streaming deal for $17.5 million and 69 cents. Nice. That extra 69 cents means it narrowly beats the previous Sundance record set by the controversy-addled Birth of a Nation. I don’t know whose idea it was to insist that every seventh grader’s favorite number be added to the deal in order to set the new record, but a round of applause is in order.
That the film it beat is Birth of a Nation highlights why this deal is peculiar. Typically, the major fees go to movies that distributors assume will make the long journey to awards season, or at the very least generate a healthy box office and buzz. Samberg’s last major comedy star turn was in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. The movie is a comedic masterpiece, one of the best of the last decade. It also grossed less than $10 million.
Samberg is so fantastically Samberg-y in Palm Springs, which is a MAJOR endorsement of the film. Milioti is one of my favorite actresses. We first met running on treadmills next to each other at a hotel in Calgary. She complimented my form. I’m not saying that triggered any sort of bias on my account, but the fact is that Cristin Milioti is one of the finest actresses of her generation and it’s criminal that she hasn’t won three Oscars and five Emmys by now. (She’s fantastic in Palm Springs.)
Still $17,500,000.69? I’m dubious, but hopeful.
The other record-setting deal was $12 million from A24 and Apple TV+ for Boys State, the most ever spent on a documentary. About a legendary camp in which teenagers gather for a week and build their own democratic government from the ground up that I had never heard of but I later learned traumatized many people I am friends with on social media, it is incredibly watchable and crowd-pleasing—if it doesn’t exactly inspire hope for the future of political campaigning.
It’s a great movie, and one of the easier watches at a festival with documentaries about gay purges, the murder of journalists, deadly nightclub fires, and sexual assualt on the lineup. But how often do documentaries, especially about kids engaging in civic imagination, do $12 million at the box office?
I don’t know. The high altitude makes you do crazy things, like give standing ovations to movies that when you see them again at sea level play like hot garbage, or purchase sushi from a grocery store in a land-locked state for dinner at 10 p.m. after seeing four movies on a Monday. In the case of distributors, that may mean spending $17.5 million and 69 cents on a high-concept rom-com.