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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.

“Juliet, Naked”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Alex Bailey.

Documentary hybrids

Three hot titles come from documentary directors crossing over to fiction to pursue what Groth calls “a new age of hybrid storytelling” as filmmakers “start drifting back and forth between all these different forms.” They include Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”), who will screen “Skate Kitchen” at NEXT. “She brings her documentary sensibility and captures an authentic look at these skate kids and a culture that you don’t often see captured,” Groth said.

A film still from <i>Skate Kitchen</i> by Crystal Moselle, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Parilla. 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.

“Skate Kitchen”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Ryan Parilla

BAFTA-winner Bart Layton (“The Imposter”) directs “American Animals,” about a quartet of art thieves. Also competing in Dramatic is Jennifer Fox (“My Reincarnation”), who helmed “The Tale,” starring Laura Dern, which Groth called “an incredibly smart” take on challenging subject matter: children who endure sexual abuse. “It’s a film that’s going to create a lot of important conversations at the festival and beyond.”

Laura Dern and Isabel Nelisse appear in <i>The Tale</i> by Jennifer Fox, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kyle Kaplan. 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.

Laura Dern and Isabel Nelisse in “The Tale”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Kyle Kaplan

Hot-Button controversies

Also expected to generate controversy ahead of its world premiere is true story “Burden,” starring Garrett Hedlund (“Mudbound”) as the South Carolina proprietor of the Redneck Shop who is taken in by a black reverend after cutting ties with the Ku Klux Klan. “What we liked about this film is that it took that subject matter head on and wasn’t afraid to explore what it is to have these different perspectives,” said Groth. “Once the film is seen and you can see what the story is, I think the controversy will go away and it will be embraced more, tackling such a challenging subject matter in such a smart way.”

Garrett Hedlund appears in <i>Burden</i> by Andrew Heckler, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Michael Muller. 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.

Garrett Hedlund in “Burden”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Michael Muller

A pair of documentaries are also likely to incite arguments. “The Devil We Know” is about the lead-up to the lawsuit DuPont recently settled with Parkersburg, West Virginia residents, whose water supply was contaminated with a chemical used to manufacture Teflon. And “Crime + Punishment” focuses on the New York Police Department. “It’s about the good and the bad,” said Cooper. “It’s one that people come down on both sides, and don’t know the story that well.”

Women’s perspectives

Fresh off her Emmy win for directing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano will debut her second feature “I Think We’re Alone Now,” starring Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning. “It’s sci-fi, it’s a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s a stripped-down world, and it’s really more of a character study than anything else,” said Groth. “It’s really beautiful storytelling. Reed Morano is one of the greatest cinematographers working today, and that is on full display in this film.”

Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage appear in <i>I Think We're Alone Now</i> by Reed Morano, 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.

Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage in “I Think We’re Alone Now”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Distributors will track audience responses to writer-director Debra Granik’s long-awaited feature follow-up to “Winter’s Bone,” “Leave No Trace,” about a Portland, Oregon father (Ben Foster) and daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) desperate to keep living off the grid.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster appear in <i>Untitled Debra Granik Project</i> by Debra Granik, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Scott Green. 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.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in “Leave No Trace”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Scott Green

Groth celebrated the “really complex roles for women onscreen this year,” including premiering documentaries about such trailblazers as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (“RBG”), rocker Joan Jett (“Bad Reputation”), actress-activist Jane Fonda (Susan Lacy’s “Jane Fonda in Five Acts”) and feminist advocate Gloria Allred (“Seeing Allred,” already scooped up by Netflix).

Daisy Ridley appears in <i>Ophelia</i> by Claire McCarthy, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Covert Media. 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.

Daisy Ridley in “Ophelia”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Julie Vrabelova

On the dramatic side, Keira Knightley stars as “Colette” in Wash Westmoreland’s ode to the Nobel Prize-nominated French novelist, who long published under her husband’s name. American Frontier saga “Damsel” stars Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, and a miniature horse named Butterscotch. Craig William Macneill’s true story “Lizzie” stars Chloë Sevigny as accused 1892 Massachusetts ax murderer Lizzie Borden; Kristen Stewart costars. And “Ophelia” brings a female gaze to “Hamlet.” “I’m curious to see how it plays,” said Groth, who is bracing for the sweeping period spectacle starring Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts and Clive Owen to be derided as “not a Sundance film.”

Sundance Film Festival’s Director of Programming, Trevor Groth, and Director, John Cooper

Photo by John Salangsang/BFAnyc.com/REX/Shutterstock

Independent television

As Sundance evolves the ways that it presents television programming during the mid-week, they’ve leaned into showcasing independently produced pilots and overseas series. “There is a need to help stimulate the business,” said Groth, who hopes that this year’s crop will find as many homes as last year’s.

Festival attendees can also look forward to a brand-new big-screen theater erected between the Holiday and Yarrow cinemas and a VR theatre inside the old Park City Port Authority building, as well as “stories about real people” and “not just biopics,” concluded Cooper. “They’re stories about struggle and art… looking at the world we live in in authentic ways, with a real point of view.”

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