Halfway through the Sundance Film Festival last week in Park City, a relatively small distributor’s acquisitions executive ordered sushi at Main Street’s Shabu, took a swig of beer, and sighed. "Amazon is making our lives miserable," he said, "but more power to them."
Meanwhile, seated at an adjacent table, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan was on the opposite end of that grievance. Days earlier, the e-commerce site-turned-deep-pocket-buyer plunked down $10 million for Lonergan’s sprawling family drama, "Manchester By the Sea" — a massive spend for any company outside the studio arena, let alone a newcomer.
"Manchester" stars Casey Affleck as a man who returns to his estranged community following his brother’s sudden death. Sometimes dreary, sometimes elevated by droll asides, it’s not the most commercial tale. However, critics flipped for Lonergan’s textured approach to human behavior, and Amazon plans to ride that enthusiasm straight into Oscar season. They might not make their money back, but unlike many of their competitors, they can afford to lose.
Not every movie had such luck. Seated across from Lonergan at this particular meal was filmmaker Antonio Campos, who premiered his similarly downbeat "Christine" in the festival’s U.S. competition to a solid response. Campos is one of the most exciting young voices in American cinema, although his work has never been in a commercial register. His unsettling earlier features "Simon Killer" and "Afterschool" gazed into the alienating experiences of troubled minds; so does "Christine," and with a star performance at its center. Rebecca Hall does her best work in the shrewdly calculated movie, which revolves around the true story of a news anchor who killed herself in a live broadcast.
Fantastically unsettling, if occasionally too cerebral, "Christine" ended Sundance without a home. The same fate befell one of this year’s great discoveries, "The Eyes of My Mother," which Campos produced as part of his Borderline Films collective. Nicolas Pesce makes his directorial debut with this nightmarish black-and-white study of a young woman who grows up in rural farm country and keeps prisoners locked in her barn for decades at a time.
A startlingly effective cult classic in the making, "The Eyes of My Mother" impressed a lot of audiences who weren’t too mortified to sit through it. But buyers saw a tough proposition: No stars, foreign language (part of the film is in Portuguese), that dreaded lack of color!
By those standards, outlandish U.S. competition entry "Swiss Army Man," which stars Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse that slowly comes back to life at the behest of island castaway Paul Dano, looked downright commercial — at least judging by its ultimate deal with A24, which until recently was the new kid on the Sundance block.
The highest commercial hopes belong to Nate Parker’s galvanizing tale of Nat Turner, "The Birth of a Nation," which latched onto the frustrations surrounding #OscarsSoWhite to become the festival’s most-discussed movie. Its $17.5 million deal with Fox Searchlight — the largest to go down in Sundance’s history — landed like a punctuation mark just hours after the rapturous premiere.
However, beyond the issue of race, Sundance buys in 2016 suggest a dearth of risk-taking among buyers shaking in the shadow of their new big-time competitors. None of the movies that generated headlines around their price tags will change the way we talk about the medium. There was no "Beasts of the Southern Wild" phenomenon. The material was there, but the marketplace resisted its dangerous allure.
Plenty of Sundance movies offered genuine reasons for excitement that had nothing to do with a broader agenda. The more creatively ambitious Amazon deal may have been the undisclosed amount for Todd Solondz’s typically irreverent ensemble dramedy "Wiener-Dog," which follows its titular pooch through a series of despondent owners grappling with life’s meaningless trajectory. Solondz’s capacity to work in such uncompromising terms 20 years after "Welcome to the Dollhouse" arrived like a beacon of hope, even for those with an aversion to his misanthropic worldview.
Beyond the Amazon headlines, however, intriguing developments lurked among films unlikely to find many audiences outside the insular festival scene. Tim Sutton’s "Dark Night," a measured, near-experimental study of the moments leading to a mass shooting in Florida, divided audiences and ended the festival without a home. At the same time, news circulated that Sutton had signed a deal with UTA, suggesting that the filmmaker won’t remain in the margins forever.
Another undistributed title, "Southside With You," received a supportive response for its cutesy rendition of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. Nobody pounced on it, but one industry veteran called it "the best African-American date movie ever." In a year when "Birth of a Nation" winning the grand jury prize was perceived as an industry wake-up call, the neglect of "Southside" suggests residual narcolepsy.
Meanwhile, the rush for big commercial material marginalized the potential for gentler achievements, such as Ira Sachs’ tender, Ozu-like tale of two young city boys, "Little Men," which still has no distribution. Buyers want big statements, grand visions, and awards bait, not likable character studies. This outcome reflects a broader cultural homogeneity — in an age that demands curation, the assumption is people want more of the same. Everyone else treads water.
In the idiosyncratic NEXT mockumentary "Jacqueline (Argentine)," a wannabe documentarian (Wyatt Cenac) gives up on his attempt to gain intel from an alleged operative (Camille Rutherford). As his project fizzles, he concludes, "You can’t make anything new anymore." The market for the movies may suggest as much, but at least the programming tells a different story.