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Sundance 2018 Programming Breakdown: Big Buys, Actor-Directors, and Hot-Button Issues

Idris Elba, Ethan Hawke, and Paul Dano are among the actors-turned-directors at this year's festival, which is jam-packed with hot acquisitions titles.

Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, and Chris O'Dowd appear in Juliet, Naked by Jesse Peretz, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alex Bailey. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne, and Chris O’Dowd in “Juliet, Naked”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Alex Bailey.

Ten months after the Sundance Film Festival debut of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” — which terrified and delighted festgoers at a secret screening last January, en route to a $250- million worldwide box office and growing award season haul — festival director John Cooper and head programmer Trevor Groth talked to IndieWire about their process for finding films for Sundance’s 39th installment (January 18-28) with similar breakout potential, even if the 2018 Sundance slate is less sprawling than its predecessor (104 films vs. 113, culled from 29 countries).

Here’s our breakdown of this year’s thematic trends and hot buys.

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal appea in <i>Blindspotting</i> by Carlos López Estrada, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal in “Blindspotting”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

African-American stories

“We saw a real increase in [stories told from] the unique perspective and experience of African-American males in American society right now,” said Cooper, citing four of the 16 films in 2018’s U.S. Dramatic Competition alone:  “Monster,” the tale of a teenager falsely accused of murder; “Monsters and Men,” offering three perspectives on the death of a black man at the hands of police; “Blindspotting,” a buddy comedy starring “Hamilton” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” alum Daveed Diggs; and Sebastian Silva-directed “TYREL,” boasting a familiar premise to Peele fans: a man (“Mudbound” star Jason Mitchell) grapples with being the lone black person at a birthday party, set in a cabin miles from civilization.

Carey Mulligan appears in <i>Wildlife</i> by Paul Dano, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Carey Mulligan in “Wildlife”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Actor-Directors

Peele arrived at Sundance last year after establishing himself as a performer in Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele”; this year a trio of well-known actors make their Sundance feature directing debuts. In Competition, Paul Dano premieres “Wildlife,” a script he adapted with fiancée Zoe Kazan from a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford. “Wildlife” features potential award-worthy turns from Carey Mulligan as a member of a fractured family in 60s Montana as well as Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the film’s producers.

Aml Ameen appears in <i>Yardie</i> by Idris Elba, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alex Bailey. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs.

Aml Ameen in “Yardie”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Alex Bailey

The World Cinema Competition unveils British star Idris Elba’s “Yardie,” about a Jamaican boy who immigrates to London after watching his brother’s assassination. Meanwhile, out of competition, Rupert Everett will show “The Happy Prince” for the first time, playing Oscar Wilde yet again (BAM’s “The Judas Kiss”). “We stepped up our outreach for world cinema,” said Cooper.

Also in Competition, Oscar-nominated actor-writer Ethan Hawke will vie for dramatic honors with his third film as a director, “BLAZE,” a look at the short life of country musician Blaze Foley (Benjamin Dickey), who was murdered in Austin, Texas at age 39.

Charlie Sexton appears in <i>BLAZE</i> by Ethan Hawke, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Josh Hamilton. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Charlie Sexton in “BLAZE”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Josh Hamilton

Another film that could boast staying power is “Eighth Grade,” the first film from comedian and YouTube sensation Bo Burnham, produced by Scott Rudin, which already has distribution through A24 (“Lady Bird,” “The Florida Project”).

Big Buys

Landing an opening night berth signals how tempting the Sundance programmers consider a title to be for distributors in the hunt for buys on the jam-packed opening weekend.

Nabbing enviable Day One slots at the ten-day fest are U.S. Dramatic Competition buddy comedy “Blindspotting”; NEXT’s magic-realist “306 Hollywood,” in which a two siblings rummage through their late grandmother’s house to learn about her past life; and Brazilian World Dramatic Competition feature “Loveling,” a look at parental angst. (The programmers were also upbeat about “Rust,” a second Brazilian title.)

Day One documentaries include U.S. Competition title “Kailash,” about Kailash Satyarth, a crusader against child slavery; World Competition feature “Our New President,” examining Donald Trump’s ascension through the eyes of Russian propagandists; and Premiere “Generation Wealth,” Lauren Greenfield’s continued exploration into the privileged classes. 

Other possible big buys include “Monsters and Men,” social-media mystery “Search,” and NEXT’s “We the Animals,” director Jeremiah Zagar’s coming-of-age story about three brothers, which the programmers compared to a quieter “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” (The 2012 Sundance premiere earned four Academy Award nominations including the youngest-ever Best Actress Quvenzhané Wallis.) “This is equally beautifully made,” said Groth, “and the kids in it are just incredible.”

Raul Castillo and Evan Rosado appear in <i>We The Animals</i> by Jeremiah Zagar, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Zak Mulligan. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Raul Castillo and Evan Rosado in “We The Animals”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Zak Mulliga

Also in the mix as a potential Oscar contender is Jesse Peretz’s “Juliet, Naked,” starring Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd as a couple who encounter an obscure rocker making a comeback (Hawke). Adapted from the Nick Hornby classic by writer all-stars Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson, and Evgenia Peretz, the movie is financed by producer Jeffrey Soros and produced by Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa — who are no strangers to awards contention.

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