More than any other event, it’s the Sundance Film Festival that kicks the moviegoing year off. Every January, Hollywood descends en masse on Park City, Utah, for the world’s most prominent independent film festival, and from “Precious” and “Man On Wire” to “Whiplash” and “Boyhood,” it’s often the source of some of the most talked-about films of the year.
And the most talked-about filmmakers too. Every year sees a host of filmmakers drop a movie that sees them explode into greatness, and the festival’s history of over 30 years has seen some of the best-known, best-loved directors of everything from idiosyncratic personal projects to giant blockbusters get their big break at Sundance. With the festival in full swing, we’ve run down the 25 biggest filmmakers to be discovered at Park City over the years — take a look at our list below, and find out who we’re tipping to join them later in the week.
Click here for our complete coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival
Many of these filmmakers have returned to Sundance with other movies, sustaining long relationships with the festivals. Paul Thomas Anderson hasn’t, as yet, with subsequent movies either skipping festivals altogether or screening in the fall. But though he isn’t often named among the festival’s luminaries in the way that some of his contemporaries weren’t, Park City played a crucial part in the origin story of one of our best-loved filmmakers. The director’s first major short film, “Cigarettes & Coffee,” was selected for the festival in 1993 (John Cooper, now the festival’s head, remembered to Esquire booking it as soon as he saw it), and he workshopped his feature debut at the Sundance Labs the following year, reshaping the script entirely. “Hard Eight,” the resulting movie, screened at the festival in 1996, but despite decent reviews, was overshadowed by films like “Welcome To The Dollhouse” and “Big Night.” The film was noticed more when it played Cannes a few weeks later (saving Anderson from wrangling with financiers who wanted to cut the movie down), but Sundance certainly played a huge part in PTA’s big break.
Now an Oscar-nominated, much-sought after helmer with a blockbuster track record, Darren Aronofsky’s career couldn’t have gotten off to a more modest start. Aged 28, he raised the budget for his first feature, “Pi,” with a sort of proto-Kickstarter, asking $100 dollars from friends and family (promising a 150% return) until he’d reached the $60,000 budget. The film, a terrific, entirely original black-and-white paranoid thriller taking in Kabbalah, mathematics, the stock market and the name of God, was an instant sensation in Park City when it premiered, going on to win Aronofsky the Best Director award. He swiftly followed it up with brutal, Oscar-nominated drug-addiction drama “Requiem For A Dream,” and has consistently swung for the fences ever since: with ambitious, time-spanning romance “The Fountain;” by helping Mickey Rourke to the performance of his career with gritty, lo-fi drama “The Wrestler;” with heady psycho-giallo “Black Swan,” a giant hit which won Aronofsky his Oscar nod; and with underrated Biblical blockbuster “Noah.”
Eleven women have had their movies nominated for Best Picture (perhaps predictably, only three were nominated for Best Director), with Sundance having launched a number of them, including Lone Scherfig, Valerie Faris and Debra Granik. It might have been hard to imagine, back in 1998, that Lisa Cholodenko would be one of them. Not because of quality — her debut feature “High Art” was a beautifully wrought, whip-smart drama — it was just that “High Art” seemed to suggest a filmmaker with more in common with New Queer Cinema than with the Academy’s conservative taste. But Chodolenko, who won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for her debut at Sundance, has becoming increasingly impressive, and arguably more mainstream, over time. 2002’s “Laurel Canyon” failed to take off, and 2004’s “Cavedweller” is a somewhat forgotten cable movie, but she blew up again after premiering at Sundance with “The Kids Are All Right,” which won rave reviews, became a sleeper hit and won four Oscar nominations. She’s not made a feature since, but HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” took eight Emmys, including Best Director.
One of Sundance’s most recent success stories, Ryan Coogler still only has two movies behind him, but he has the potential to be one of the biggest names ever to break out of the festival. After developing the movie at the Sundance Labs (which have benefited more than a few of the filmmakers on this list), he made his debut with 2013’s “Fruitvale Station,” which told the true story of Oscar Grant, who’d was unlawfully killed by two transit cops on New Year’s Day 2009. The movie picked up rave reviews for both Coogler’s direction and the star-making lead turn from Michael B. Jordan, and took both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Oscar buzz for the film didn’t come to pass, but the movie went on to play Cannes and become a modest box-office hit. Coogler made his studio debut a few months back with “Creed,” his thrilling, moving, beautifully made revival of the “Rocky” franchise, and will next be going into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the eagerly anticipated “Black Panther.”
It’s more common for a director to move into producing than the other way around, but Lee Daniels found enormous success following the second path, with a little help from Sundance. As a producer, Daniels found critical acclaim with the Oscar-winning “Monster’s Ball” and Sundance premiere “The Woodsman,” though his first movie as director, “Shadowboxer,” a TIFF premiere, was poorly regarded. The same could certainly not be said for his follow-up, “Precious: Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire,” which screened at the festival at 2009. A powerful, hard-to-watch coming-of-age film, it was one of the few to win both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, leaving audiences sobbing, and Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey vowing to lend their names to the picture. It worked, too: With six Oscar nods, including Best Picture and Best Director, and a strong box-office haul, it’s one of the most successful Sundance movies ever. Daniels’ follow-up “The Paperboy’ flopped, but he’s bounced back hugely with both box-office hit “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and TV mega-hit “Empire.”