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

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 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 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 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 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 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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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.

“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 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 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 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,” an untitled account about a Portland, Oregon father (Ben Foster) and daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) desperate to keep living off the grid.

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in “Untitled Debra Granik Project”

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 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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