Virtually everyone in the bubble of film industry aficionados that descended on Park City this year asked some version of the same question at the very beginning: What's this year's "Beasts of the Southern Wild?" By the final day of the festival Sunday, however, the answer was clear: Nothing. And thank goodness for that.
Last year's breakout dramatic competition title, an oddball first-time feature from a quirky film collective, not only won the grand jury prize and secured a swanky distribution deal with Fox Searchlight, it escalated immediately to the status of one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year. "Beasts" found celebrity endorsements from the likes of Barack Obama and Oprah, garnered further accolades at Cannes, performed decently in theaters and eventually became a major player at the Academy Awards. How do you beat that?
The easy answer is that you can't. This year's Sundance had no evident out-of-nowhere phenomenon that was bound to erupt onto the national stage with the same prominence allotted to "Beasts" once it premiered 12 months ago. Instead, we got something better: One of the most intriguing, diverse and provocative lineups in years. With fewer outright duds, the Sundance 2013 program featured a refreshingly decentralized form of hype. A lot of people liked a lot of different movies.
This was a welcome change from the usual domination of consensus choices. While a dramedy that received lukewarm reviews, "The Way, Way Back," landed the biggest sales deal for its perceived commercial value, on the whole the program avoided pat expectations and surprised even those keeping a close watch on the hype machine: critics, distributors and even the programmers responsible for the lineup were taken by surprise by the way the festival played out.
On its final day, I called up program director and Sundance veteran Trevor Groth to unpack the past ten days and look ahead to the next edition.
In a general sense, how would you rate this year's festival?
I think everyone felt it was a pretty extraordinary year, mostly in terms of the films themselves. That was my takeaway. Films connected with their audiences. It's not that every film was loved by everyone but they connected with those for whom they were made.
What movies connected the way you figured they would?
"Before Midnight" is the kind of special film that doesn't come around very often. To see that one connect with audiences the way it did — it's rare to feel that love. Then you had some crowdpleasers like "In a World…," "The Way, Way Back," "The Spectacular Now." Those all seemed to really play well to their audiences. Then you also had more challenging, conceptual films like "Upstream Color" that played well for the people they were made for. And a lot of the films in the NEXT category did well.
Were there any films that didn't get the warm reception you expected they would?
Honestly, maybe "Two Mothers," a film that I loved coming into the festival. I think some people had a different read on it than I did. I was sort of surprised by that. I think maybe some of the content made people uncomfortable and it shifted their expectations.
That was one of many, many movies at the festival that fueled a conversation about the prominence of sex in the program. What did you make of that focus?
Ultimately, the conversation around sexuality and relationships is great. But at a certain point you have to realize that so much about that issue is part of a bigger piece of a life. I think for something like "Two Mothers," what people missed was the sophisticated exploration of what friendship is and expectations about the lives we live. That can sometimes overshadow the conversations around the films. But the two James Franco films at the festival — "Interior. Leather Bar," which he co-directed, and "Kink," which he produced — were both effective in getting people to think about sexuality in new ways. I'm all for that.
"Fruitvale" won the grand jury prize and landed distribution with The Weinstein Company. I suppose you could say that it's the big breakout this year, but it's not destined to face the same ecstatic reaction everywhere it goes that "Beasts" did last year.
"Fruitvale" is probably the closest to being that one film this year because of the awards it won. But it's such a different film, and it will have its own life. I couldn't be happier for the people involved with that film. But I'd love to have people never come into the festival ever with expectations and just appreciate all these different films for what they are. For me, it's about trying to put them in a position so that they are found by the people that want to find them. I think that's a positive thing that's come out of this festival.
How did you feel about the outcome of the awards this year?
Both films that won the grand jury prize and audience prize were the unanimous choices by the jury. ["Fruitvale" and "Blood Brother" both won audience prizes along with the grand jury prizes.] I don't know if that has ever happened in the same year. I can't remember if it has. But it just speaks to the qualities of the films. I had a feeling "Blood Brother" would vie for the audience award, but I didn't necessarily think of it as a grand jury prize winner.
You're organizing Sundance London for the second year in a row now. How much of this year's lineup will travel there?
We are in the process of putting together our lineup for Sundance London. We're going to take around 14 films from this year's program. Having been there once, I kind of know the audience now. That's exciting. Already we have a number of films that are going to go on to play Rotterdam and Berlin.
To what extent did the market of the festival mirror your expectations? A number of the well-received movies this year have already found distribution.
We try not to put too many expectations on that because it's out of our control. We knew how we felt about our films. We knew they would find their audiences at the festival and hopefully beyond. But it was exciting to watch it all unfold. It means those films are going to have a chance to connect with a bigger audience. For the most part, I think they went for the right price. That's one trend that stays consistent.
That being said, I thought the NEXT section was really strong this year, but not one of those 10 movies has found a distributor yet.
We always do whatever we can to help all of the films at the festival. The films that are in NEXT are there because they're not mainstream commercial films, but I believe in the quality of all of them. It's just going to take some time to figure out the right path for them to go find their right audiences. They're never going to be bidding-war films. But I think the audience and the critical response for all of them was so encouraging — they will definitely get out there.
On the first day of the festival, Robert Redford suggested there might be too many festivals these days. Do you agree?
I love film festivals, and I actually think the more film festivals there are the better for film culture. With theatrical distribution being so challenging for these films — plus, now we have digital platforms — I think the more film festivals the better. It just proves there's hunger for all of these films.