The 2019 Sundance Film Festival brings more questions than usual.
Sellers believe they have brought the goods, but with few new buyers on the horizon, several more wavering, questions of whether Netflix and Amazon will be aggressive as they make their own content, and the influx of streaming services another year or two away, will there be enough of an appetite to fuel the all-nighter auctions that have made this festival exciting and exhausting?
Will Bruce Springsteen come to Park City for the premiere of Blinded By The Light, the coming of age of a Muslim teen directed by Bend it Like Beckham’s Gurinder Chada, with 16 Springsteen songs providing the narrative backbeat? And for that matter, what about Wu-Tang Clan for the debut of the four episodes of the limited series Of Mics and Men, about that storied band’s history, or the David Crosby docu Remember My Name that premieres in competition this weekend? There could be music in the air, but will the cash register ring with sales?
The Sundance slate reflects the inclusion and diversity aims that appropriately moved to the forefront after the fall of former Sundance king Harvey Weinstein in sexual assault allegations that will play out in a criminal trial this spring. That change will be felt in the very first major film to launch tonight, After The Wedding. The Bart Freundlich-directed drama is a remake of a Susanne Bier film that was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign film that revolved around an India orphanage and men who come together and are confronted by past actions. The new film has gender-swapped the leads and the film stars Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams.
Late Night is also a female driven film, directed by Nisha Ganatra and scripted by Mindy Kaling, latter of whom stars with Emma Thompson. That film premieres Friday. Buyers said the scripts for both of those films were exceptional, and big auctions on these two films could certainly stimulate buying here at Sundance.
Conversations with sellers and buyers indicate that the festival will benefit from the surge in audience appetite for documentaries that saw big business for films from RBG to Three Identical Strangers to Won’t You Be My Neighbor, even though the exclusion of that Mr Rogers film from the Best Docu Oscar nomination is that branch’s equivalent of last Sunday’s heinous no-call in the Saints-Rams championship game that put the wrong team in the Super Bowl.
There are some new moneyed players, including Solstice, headed by former WIP chief Mark Gill, and 101 Studios headed by David Glasser, who was part of many an all-night multimillion dollar auction as COO of The Weinstein Company. How aggressive they get will help determine the vibrancy of the marketplace, as will the appetites of streamers Netflix and Amazon, entities that fueled the action in recent years but pulled back last Sundance. Apple could make a deal or two after acquiring The Elephant Queen in Toronto, as should Showtime and HBO. The usual players, from Sony Pictures Classics to Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight, A24, Bleecker Street, Focus, Roadside, NEON and 30West among them, all have slots to fill even though most said they are feeling cautious and will be content to promote the films they’re bringing to Sundance, if they don’t fall in love.
All say they are looking for the next Big Sick, Manchester By The Sea, Whiplash or Brooklyn, films which sold at Sundance, played well in the marketplace, factored into the awards season conversations and launched significant new filmmakers. Those discoveries are always elusive, as evidenced by some of what happened last year. This is Us creator Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself would have been last year’s fest opener, but was pulled back after Amazon Studios came in with a generous preemptive bid. That film made the mistake of premiering at Toronto, where critics killed it and doomed its theatrical prospects as the film didn’t connect with the vast TV audience for Fogelman’s show.
Last year’s biggest deal, an 8-figure worldwide rights buy of Assassination Nation, also failed at the box office and fell in line with past pricey Sundance misfires like Patti Cake$ and The Birth of a Nation. That didn’t mean last year’s Sundance didn’t deliver. Films like Searching, The Tale, Leave No Trace, Hereditary and Sorry to Bother You proved there are discoveries – and box office successes — to be found here, and for reasonable sums if distributors are willing to work hard enough to succeed in the theatrical marketplace. Which is what keeps prospecting distribution executives coming back every year to the cold, the snow, and the thin air of Park City.
So there will be sales here, but the fest might be hard pressed to find many that lands in the 8-figure mark, and the pace of deal making could be slow. And you can bet that buyers will perform due diligence, background checks and volatile tweets to head off controversies that have destroyed films. Buyers and sellers feel we are at an ebb and that the action will get brisk again when subscription streaming services backed by Disney, Universal, AT&T Time Warner and MGM become hungry for content as they try to build fresh slates quickly that will draw audiences to pay monthly subscription fees. That should be a B-12 shot for this ecosystem, but it’s a year or two away. In the short term, CBS Films will be on hand, buying films for CBS All Access streaming service.
Here are some of the films that the buying crowd has named as prime acquisition targets:
AFTER THE WEDDING – Director: Bart Freundlich. Cast: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Billy Cudrup. An idealistic manager of a floundering orphanage is sent to secure funds, and, in turn, discovers a life-changing family secret. Section: Premieres
1st Screening – Thursday, January 24th – 5:30PM, Eccles/The Ray
LATE NIGHT – Director: Nisha Gantara. Cast: Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson, John Lithgow. A veteran late-night talk show host is comes close to losing her job after hiring the show’s first female writer. Section: Premieres
1st Screening – Friday, January 25th – 6:30PM, Eccles
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT – Director: Gurinder Chadha. Cast: Viveik Karla, Nell Williams, Hayley Atwell. In 1987, during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain, a Muslim teenager learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen. Section: Premieres.
1st Screening – Sunday, January 27th – 6:30PM, Eccles
BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON – Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo. Cast: Jillian Bell, Lil Rel Howery, Michaela Watkins. A woman living in New York takes control of her life – one city block at a time. The journey of the real person on which the protagonist is based, gave the filmmaker the courage to face realities in his own life. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition
1st Screening – Monday, January 28th – 12:15PM, Eccles
THE FAREWELL – Director: Lulu Wang. Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin. A Chinese family discovers that their beloved grandmother has a short time to live. They don’t tell her, but instead stage a wedding so the family can gather before she expires. It is based on Wang’s own family experience. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition
1st Screening – Friday, January 25th – 12:15PM, Eccles
HALA – Director: Minhal Baig, Cast: Geraldine Viswanathan Jack Kilmer, Purbi Joshi. A Muslim teenager copes with the unraveling of her family, as she undergoes a sexual and spiritual awakening. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition
1st Screening – Saturday, January 26th – 12:00PM PC Library
CLEMENCY – Director: Chinonye Chukwu. Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, LaMonica Garrett. Woodard plays a stoic prison warden, but two back-to-back executions put a strain on her marriage, career, and convictions.
Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition’
1st Screening – Sunday January 27th – 6:00PM, PC Library
HONEY BOY – Director: Alma Harel. Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Maika Monroe. For any of us who watched with sadness the rough road that child star Shia LaBeouf has traveled into adulthood, this film explains much about this terrific young actor. Scripted by LaBeouf, the film tells the story of a young breakout thesp who moved from a TV series to movie stardom, and his lawbreaking,
alcohol-abusing father, as they attempt to mend their contentious relationship over the course of a
decade. LaBeouf plays his father. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition
1st Screening – Friday, January 25th – 3:30PM, Eccles
LUCE – Director: Julius Onah. Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth. A liberal-minded husband and wife are forced to reconsider if their shining academic star adopted son Luce has serious problems, after he writes an essay for a class assignment with messages disturbing enough to leave a teacher alarmed. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition
1st Screening – Sunday January 27th – 3:00PM, PC Library
THE REPORT – Director: Scott Burns. Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Benning, John Hamm. The true story of Daniel Jones’ exhaustive six-year investigation into the CIA’s use of torture on detainees suspected of terrorist activities.
1st Screening – Saturday, January 26th – 3:45PM, Eccles
OFFICIAL SECRETS – Director: Gavin Hood. Cast: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes. A British intelligence officer turns whistleblower after learning about NSA espionage plans designed to ensure passage of a resolution of war against Iraq by the U.N. Security Council in 2003.
1st Screening – Monday, January 28th – 6:30PM, Eccles
LITTLE MONSTERS – Director: Abe Forsythe. Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Alexander England, Josh Gad. While competing for the attention of a teacher while chaperoning on a field trip, a musician and television host must protect the class from a zombie attack.
1st Screening – Sunday, January 27th – 11:59PM, PC Library
MIKE WALLACE IS HERE – Director: Avi Belkin. For over half a century, “60 Minutes’’ fearsome newsman Mike Wallace went head-to-head with the world’s most influential figures. Relying exclusively on archival footage, the film interrogates the interrogator, tracking Mike’s storied career and troubled personal life while unpacking how broadcast journalism evolved to today’s precarious tipping point. Section: U.S. Documentary Competition
1st Screening – Sunday, January 27th – 12:30PM, The Ray
CORPORATE ANIMALS – Director: Patrick Brice. Cast: Ed Helms, Jessica Williams, Demi Moore. The staff of Incredible Edible Cutlery attend a corporate team-building caving weekend, and when disaster strikes, trapping them all underground, the group struggles to survive amidst sexual tension, startling business revelations, and casual cannibalism.
1st Screening – Tuesday, January 29th – 8:30PM, The MARC
THE LODGE – Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala. Cast: Riley Keough, Jaeden Lieberher, Lia McHugh. A young woman and her reticent new stepchildren find themselves isolated in the family’s remote winter cabin, locked away to dredge up the mysteries of her dark past and the losses that seem to haunt them all. Directors make their English language debut after Goodnight Mommy.
1st Screening – Friday, January 25th – 11:59PM, PC Library
WHERE’S MY ROY COHN? – Director: Matt Tyrnauer. Roy Cohn is the behind the scenes facilitator of everything from McCarthyism to the death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the rise of Donald Trump. He takes on the aura of a Bond villain, plying his expertise in the dark arts of American politics, turning empty vessels into dangerous demagogues.
Section: U.S. Documentary Competition
1st Screening – Friday, January 25th – 2:30PM, The MARC
THE INFILTRATORS – Director: Alex Rivera, Cristina Ibarra. Cast: Chelsea Rendon, Vik
Sahay, Maynor Alvarado. Remarkable true story of two undocumented youth-
Dreamers who get detained by Border Patrol on purpose in order to go into a detention center and uncover the truth of what is happening inside. In the process they told detainees what steps to take to stay in the country.
Section: Park City at Midnight
1st Screening – Friday, January 25th – 8:30PM, PC Library