John Poelking
John Poelking is a Leisure Analyst at Mintel. His passion for live entertainment, movies, television, technology and travel informs his sector knowledge.

Every January in the Utah mountains, Hollywood big wigs congregate in Park City to view, buy, sell, and promote a plethora of new media at the Sundance Film Festival. Movie stars and emerging filmmakers come to the festival in the hopes of eventually getting their content out to a larger audience.

Each of the dozens of movies screened over ten days spoke to different trends in media content including inclusivity and nostalgia. However, the drama offscreen was indicative of how media brands will form their own identity in a crowded marketplace. New entrants in digital media from Disney, WarnerMedia, and Apple are expected to be available to consumers by the end of the year, which brought a new competitive context to the festival.

Here’s the breakdown of the biggest players and what it could mean for the rest of 2019:

Amazon

After a quieter 2018, Amazon Studios set the record for the most a studio spent in any one year at the festival. Amazon paid nearly $50 million for distribution rights to five films.

Amazon is making a major play to be an important figure in both theatrical and digital distribution. The studio has a good relationship with theaters, but with mixed results, financially. Some of its bigger hits have been offset by underperformers. The company also reportedly made an offer to buy independent theater chain Landmark Theaters in 2018 that never came to fruition. Amazon has the resources to give smaller titles the resources afforded to most major studio releases to build a successful theatrical run.

Digitally, nearly one-third of consumers currently watch content on Amazon Prime, according to Mintel Research on pay TV. More than some of its direct competitors, Amazon skews towards an older, more affluent demographic who likely also subscribe to the other retail benefits afforded to Amazon Prime. With its brand mixed with other services across categories, Amazon has had a more difficult time populating its digital library with a distinct brand voice.

The heavy investment of these specific titles shows Amazon leaning into its more mature audience. The dramas and crowd-pleasing adult comedies should play well with older audiences in the summer months made for more commercial independent fare. Amazon’s initial priority will likely be theatrical distribution, with the digital release following. The tech giant will likely continue to invest in the movie-going experience as it looks to pull away from its biggest digital competitors.

Netflix

In the past couple years, Netflix has been much quieter during the festival, focusing on premiering previous acquisitions and original developments at the festival. This year, the tide changed when Netflix purchased two award-winning documentaries for significant sums as well as the Ted Bundy biopic that will be released in theaters for a potential awards season run.

With Disney and WarnerMedia set to launch their digital video services in the coming year, Netflix is set to face the most serious competition it has ever been up against. Before that happens, Netflix is going to need to reinforce its place in the market as an original content leader in quantity and quality. The commercial and awards success of “Roma” this year further legitimized the platform as a serious contender. In spite of this and Netflix’s addition to the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) in 2019, major theaters have yet to recognize it as a real player in their space.

The acquisitions and premieres at Sundance point to an investment in one genre that has become Netflix’s bread and butter: real life stories. By strengthening its key consumers’ favorite libraries and sharpening its focus on global legitimacy, Netflix should continue to thrive despite new competitors.

Hulu

After the acquisition of Fox, Disney will own a reported 60% share in Hulu. In early 2019, Hulu lowered the price for its ad-supported service while simultaneously raising the price for its ad-free version.

While going through a series of changes, Hulu will likely maintain its position in the market as an intermediary for cord-cutters in their transition from a pay TV service to the digital market. Licensed entertainment available a day after airing on network channels is Hulu’s foundation, but the platform is going to keep building up its library to make it more of a one-stop-shop for entertainment.

Hulu’s partnership with NEON in the acquisition of “Little Monsters” also signals how studios will likely approach riskier titles in a crowded marketplace. By divesting the focus in the distribution model, both Hulu and NEON are mitigating their risk. Cross-entertainment partnerships are nothing new in the media landscape, but deals like this will likely become more important as studios and platforms try to stand out.

Apple

Apple is the biggest question mark on the digital media landscape. Since announcing that it will start producing original content, Apple has secured projects from major Hollywood talent, such as Reese Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg, and Oprah Winfrey. However, it is unclear how these projects will make their way to the masses. It could be available exclusively on Apple TVs, or bundled with Apple Music and Apple News to make a one-stop-shop for media needs.

Despite an unclear platform, Apple screened one movie at Sundance it had previously acquired at another festival. Apple also entered the buyer’s market with its first purchase in Sundance history: the coming-of-age drama, “Hala.”

The distribution model may be murky, but the audience is significantly clearer. The catalog of talent and titles Apple is acquiring implies they are set to secure the attention of adult audiences seeking prestige offerings usually discussed during awards season. Amazon might be looking over its shoulders as this is certainly a similar audience they are working to capture.

What we think

How consumers respond to a slew of new offerings in 2019 will dictate where the digital media market will be going in years to come. New platforms may cannibalize an already established audience, or they may bring new users to grow the digital media pie overall. Either way, established players in the market have already started their year off with a bang.