At Sundance, Amazon Buys Likely Contender For Next Year’s Oscars

manchester-by-the-sea-sundance-2016
The first Oscar Contender for 2016 (by virtually all accounts) was just purchased by Amazon for $10 million at the Sundance Film Festival.

Manchester by the Sea looks to follow in the footsteps of Brooklyn, the romantic drama that saw its Oscar buzz during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival pay off (it’s currently up for 3 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress).

Manchester, from writer/director (and Broadway playwright) Kenneth Lonergan, is described by Variety’s Chief Film Critic Justin Chang as an “emotionally overwhelming” and “beautifully textured, richly enveloping drama about how a death in the family forces a small-town New Englander (played by Casey Affleck) to confront a past tragedy anew.” The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd wrote, “I don’t need more time, more reflection, or another viewing to confidently declare that Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea (Grade: A) is a tremendous achievement…a film so overwhelmingly powerful that I spent most of yesterday afternoon’s world premiere screening either holding back tears or releasing them.” Vulture.com’s review headline said simply “Manchester by the Sea Will Wreck You”.

After its debut screening, Manchester was immediately swept up into an aggressive bidding war between multiple distributors. It eventually narrowed down to three – Amazon, Focus Features, and Fox Searchlight (which purchased Brooklyn a year ago) – before Amazon landed Sundance’s hottest entry with $10 million and a commitment to an awards season campaign.

Translation: that likely means Amazon – which continues to build its Prime streaming service brand as Netflix’s biggest competitor – will give Manchester by the Sea a legitimate theatrical run. This would be in stark contrast to Netflix’s failed strategy with Beasts Of No Nation, an awards contender it purchased at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Netflix only gave Beasts a token theatrical play before keeping it exclusively on its streaming service. As a consequence, Beasts wasn’t able to gain any consistent awards traction.

Manchester by the Sea has a very interesting history. Initially intended to be the directorial debut of Matt Damon, he and actor John Krasinski (who co-wrote and co-starred with Damon in the Gus Van Sant film Promised Land) approached Kenneth Lonergan with a script they’d come across, asking Lonergan to do a rewrite on the bulky overlong piece. Damon also intended to star, as did Krasinski. As the film’s development took longer than planned, and the actors’ schedules changed, Damon dropped out as director and then actor, eventually staying on solely as a producer. In that capacity, Damon asked Lonergan to direct and to cast Casey Affleck in the lead. Now the film is receiving instant Best Picture buzz, as is Lonergan for director and Affleck for Actor. Even Michelle Williams is garnering accolades in a small role; Collider.com’s Adam Chitwood raves that Williams “soars with emotional complexity to spare, and the impact of her performance is enormous.”

Lonergan, for his part – whose feature debut You Can Count On Me was the toast of the 2000 Sundance festival, and introduced Mark Ruffalo to the film world – was coming off of a very discouraging experience with his second feature Margaret, which starred Anna Paquin and Ruffalo. After finalizing a three-hour cut of the film, distributor Fox Searchlight demanded the contractual requirement of a 150-minute final edit not be exceeded. Fox Searchlight eventually released a 150 minute cut in 2011 that was not approved by Lonergan. Its critical reception was widely divided, and its box office was dead on arrival. Lonergan’s three-hour cut was eventually released on DVD/Blu-ray, and that version has largely been lauded as a masterpiece.

Amazon has not yet announced a release schedule for Manchester by the Sea, but its likely to get a platform release in the fall, through the heart of awards season.

To read Variety’s review, click here. The A.V. Club’s review is here. Vulture’s is here. And Collider’s is here.

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