Sundance Opening Day: Programmers On Ups & Downs Of Online Fest, Expanding Buyers’ Appetites

Sundance Film Festival 2022
The marquee of the Egyptian Theatre appears in Park City, Utah on Jan. 28, 2021. The Sundance Film Festival is cancelling its in-person festival and reverting to an entirely virtual edition due to the current coronavirus surge. AP

“Let’s keep moving forward,” Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson said Thursday in the middle of the virtual opening-day virtual press conference for the near-40-year-old event.

The expression was meant as a segue, but organically took on a greater meaning for the premier global indie festival, which was forced to cancel its live Park City portion 15 days ago due to the Omicron surge: Let’s deal with the now, and continue to wave the flag for independent cinema.

(L-R) Tabitha Jackson and Kim Yutani Sundance

With an introduction made by new Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente, Jackson was joined by her fellow programmers — Director Kim Yutani; Chief Curator, New Frontier Shari Frilot; and Senior Programmer and Director of Strategic Initiatives, John Nein — the gist of the 2022 presser was to convey that there’s only one way forward as the festival settles into being online for a second consecutive year. And that is through.

“’Pivot’ is a trigger word for all of our staff,” said Jackson, who continues to emphasize that Sundance will remain some form of a hybrid festival moving forward even as the pandemic eases, after last year’s virtual edition pulled in 600,000 viewers.

Many notable global film festivals returned to being live last year during the pandemic including Cannes, Venice, Telluride and Toronto, as will the upcoming Berlin Film Festival, so it’s with a frown that we see Sundance retreat due to the pandemic.

More than the filmmakers selling their wares at Sundance, those truly feeling the burn here with an online edition are the Park City and Salt Lake City communities, which reap the economic upside of the festival. In 2020, the last live version of  Sundance contributed a reported $135 million to the state of Utah, generated more than 2,700 jobs and yielded $17.8 million in state and local tax income.

The maneuver away from an in-person event comes at a time when independent cinema is already hobbled, eroded by streamers with blank checks who are snapping up auteur works and moving them to in-home debuts. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest marketplace that leaves theatrical distributors in a position to either abandon talks or pick over less-flashy titles. However, feature distributors’ one bargaining chip for filmmakers is guaranteeing a real, potentially nationwide theatrical window. Unlike the 2019 in-person edition of Sundance where we saw Amazon go on a buying spree (led with its pickup of Late Night for $13M), last year’s online edition largely circled around four notable acquisitions: Apple’s $25M pickup of CODA, Netflix’s $15M purchase of Passing, Sony Pictures Classics taking Jockey and Searchlight the documentary Summer of Soul.

“We’re not chasing the market, we’re hoping to expand its appetite,” said Yutani about how Sundance responds to the indie marketplace, one in which producers must be agnostic about their movies’ future platforms.

“We want all the elements of our ecosystem to thrive,” she added, citing how the festival received a windfall of submissions for the 2022 edition despite filmmakers’ challenges to make movies during the Covid era.

Representation remains golden for Sundance. Touts Frilot this year: “I really keep turning to indigenous work. Thirty percent of the lineup this year is indigenous, and it’s really exciting and it’s right on time, and it resonates with some of the films we’ve had in the festival, in terms of a kind of vision that we really need to hear right now.”

“We don’t program to themes, but are attuned to the work that we’re getting,” Yutani said about the lineup. “We’re responsibly putting work into conversations; films speak to each other, they speak to the cultural moment and audiences.”

Yutani pointed to cinematic works about the environment, climate politics, and movies about reproductive rights, i.e., The Janes and Call Jane, as well as the French movie The Happening. 

“Call Jane” Sundance

Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ documentary The Janes follows how police raided an apartment on Chicago’s South Side in the spring of 1972, with seven women arrested. The accused were part of a clandestine network, having built an underground service for women seeking safe, affordable, illegal abortions. They called themselves JANE. Phyllis Nagy’s movie Call Jane starring Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina and Kate Mara is the feature take of that documentary’s subject, but following the underground in Chicago 1968.

Switching the festival from live to completely online was both “very hard” and “very easy,” according to Jackson.

“The Janes” HBO

Before Christmas, many entertainment industry events were already canceling or postponing their January and February dates due to Omicron. Sundance however remained hopeful about staying on schedule, and implemented reduced theater capacities and on-site testing policies for staffers and key festival attendees among other safety protocols.

“Once we had the data about the public health implications of the festival taking place in Park City with the level of transmission of Omicron and the impacts of the local infrastructure, it was very easy with that data and with the processes we had put in place to know it would be irresponsible to continue in person,” explained Jackson.

“Also, (it was) very easy because we designed the festival to be hybrid, so that online component already existed,” she added.

“(It was) very hard because of our disappointment of not being able to be back in Park City, experiencing the festival fully and being in person with our community,” she  continued. “And very hard because making these switches, living in this uncertainty and having lived through the last two years of the pandemic takes a toll.”

“But we’re here on day one of the festival with all the work in front of us and a community around us, and you know what?” continued Jackson. “It feels good.”

The Worst Person In The World
“The Worst Person in the World” Montclair Film Festival

Opening-day titles at Sundance today include Emergency, Fire of Love, Fresh, La Guerra Civil, A Love Song, Marte Um (Mars One), The Princess, Tantura, When You Finish Saving the World, and The Worst Person in the World.

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