This past weekend, much of Hollywood took a little adventure out east to Park City, Utah, for the annual Sundance Film Festival. Amid awards season, somehow, Sundance is still making its mark, allowing for distributors to cop the next big independent film or documentary.
Films that have been shot and produced on a smaller scale can only reach bigger audiences if they have a distributor or investor who can publicize the film. The Sundance Festival is a bridge in the film industry and very few projects successfully navigate that hallowed passage.
In the past, films like “Manchester by the Sea,” “The Big Sick” and “Call Me by Your Name” started at Sundance and crossed the bridge, eventually making their way to the other side and into the big league — the Oscars.
Essentially, the Sundance Film Festival is a hunting ground for Netflix, Amazon, Lionsgate and A24 — and, so far, this hunting season has been going well.
Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” won a deal with Amazon Studios for a $13 million distribution deal. The film follows Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a television host who’s on the verge of losing her own talk show. Newbury decides to hire a writer, Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), to help her diversify her appeal. “Late Night” is expected to perform well in the box office because of its comedic take on women in the workplace.
Along with “Late Night,” Amazon Studios also snagged Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report.” This CIA drama follows Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), the lead Senate staffer who must investigate the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program. Critics enjoyed the film, some even saying that it was Driver’s best performance.
Many critics and film buffs also applauded Awkwafina for her work in “The Farewell,” a dramedy about a Chinese family and their decision to not tell a member of the family that they have cancer. The film is based on Director Lulu Wang’s personal story and her podcast, “The American Life.” A24 Films acquired a distribution deal and are anticipating a summer 2019 release.
Some documentaries were also picked up at the festival. Sony Pictures Classics gained the rights for Matt Tyrnauer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” a documentary on the life of a lawyer, Roy Cohn, who is best known for assisting Sen. Joseph McCarthy in fighting the spread of communism. The film dives into the darker side of politics and is expected to release within the next year.
“Leaving Neverland” is another documentary that made its mark on the festival as well. This documentary introduces Michael Jackson’s former child companions who come forward about the alleged sexual abuse that happened on Jackson’s property.
The film has received a lot of backlash, because Jackson is no longer here and can’t defend himself. Sundance acknowledged that, but decided to keep “Leaving Neverland” on their lineup. The documentary ended up winning a deal and is set to premiere on HBO in the late spring.
Sundance, however, isn’t just about movies picking up distribution deals; it’s a festival that recognizes the talented people who have worked on the films. The competition portion of Sundance gives out 28 prizes, including the Grand Jury Prizes. The judges of the competition, a “jury” made up of experienced filmmakers and film experts, award films over the course of 11 days. Some of the most coveted distinctions are the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic and Special Jury Recognition Documentary.
Sundance is different from other film award shows because it focuses on valuing independent films, not mainstream ones. Along with the awards, the festival also has the Sundance Institute, a set of short programs that focus on topics like entertainment technology and the future of the film industry. This festival has a different approach; it wants to honor films of the past, critique the ones of the present and learn more about the what could happen to film in the future.
This was what founder Robert Redford had in mind when creating Sundance. He wanted the festival to be a way for independent filmmakers to make their way into mainstream media, a chance for them to start off their career. Redford thought it was imperative that their stories be told despite their financial limitations, because there are a lot of talented people out there who don’t have all the tools needed to be lucrative. Sundance is Redford’s way of giving back and sparking change.
Redford is setting the stage for new voices and shining a light on ones that have been silenced in the past. The Woman in Sundance initiative has allowed more women to take center stage, through various fellowships and networking events. Even at this year’s festival, out of the 112 films featured, 40 percent of them were directed by women and 36 percent were directed by a person of color. Sundance isn’t just introducing new independent voices, they are increasing much-need representation in the industry.
The annual Sundance Film Festival is like the trailer for that year in film. Yes, it may feature some spoilers as to which films will make it big, but it also introduces us to another world, a different side of the film industry. Sundance gives a taste of what’s good in film and hasn’t failed to leave people wanting more.