Stop the presses! The latest Sundance Film Festival contained few late-night, seven-figure sales for potentially commercial movies. Clearly, something disastrous has happened to the movie industry when major companies avoided making huge business decisions within the confines of a hectic and snowy 10-day window. At least, that’s the popular narrative that a slow Sundance market tends to invite, and it’s an industry perception as a whole. As consumer habits and delivery methods continue to evolve, and the culture undergoes radical shifts in the stories it tells, both the market and the movies are moving in a million directions at once.
There are countless reasons why only a handful of big sales happened at Sundance this year. Netflix, which closed out the 2017 edition by spending a jarring $12.5 million on “Mudbound,” faces a less-pressing need to shore up its slate now that it has dozens of in-house productions coming out this year (including several that premiered at Sundance, such as the well-reviewed “Private Life”). Why deal with the markup of paying off investors when it can be the investor? Amazon, which nabbed “The Big Sick” for $12 million last year, faces an evolution of its priorities as the company reportedly shifts to bigger productions. Its team tracked plenty of titles at the festival, but in a year with programming that doesn’t cater to massive demographics, its silence makes total sense.
Setting aside those two prominent disruptors, who does that leave? Fox Searchlight, still hurting from last year’s $10 million deal for box office flop “Patti Cakes,” now has new owner Disney on its back and seems to be taking it easy. But several others went to town.
Many of the regular Sundance players made a few solid deals, while a few fresh entities left a mark. The Orchard nabbed documentary-fiction heist hybrid “American Animals” in a unique partnership with emerging new media powerhouse MoviePass. Relative newcomer Neon, with the wind in its sails under the support of new owner 30West, spent a whopping $10 million on the rambunctious hacking satire “Assassination Nation,” along with a handful of smaller deals. Annapurna Pictures, still fighting to establish itself as a major distributor, landed the astonishing satire “Sorry to Bother You.”
30West also lent its support to Bleecker Street, a more traditional theatrical distributor that caters to middlebrow sensibilities, which picked up the biopic “Colette.” Bleecker also bought “Leave No Trace,” Debra Granik’s father-daughter drama that’s her followup to “Winter’s Bone.” Sony Pictures Classics went for the Kelly McDonald crowdpleaser “Puzzle.” Magnolia Pictures nabbed the tense 911 thriller “The Guilty” and the documentary “Kusama – Infinity.” Closing-night selection “Hearts Beat Loud” went to Gunpowder and Sky.
And the very first theatrical sale of this year’s festival didn’t involve an old-school Sundance bidder keen on landing a commercial sensation with visions of Oscar campaigns. Instead, hip New York entity Oscilloscope Laboratories picked up Eugene Jarecki’s “The King,” an engrossing road-trip investigation into Elvis Presley’s legacy and its parallels with American culture as a whole. Oscilloscope, which was founded by the late Beastie Boys rapper Adam Yauch and celebrated its 10th anniversary at the festival this year, represents a striking contrast to the notion that only the biggest commercial plays must launch at the festival. Sundance premieres that Oscilloscope has released to reasonable success over the years range from the twisted buddy movie “Bellflower” to the eerie Brooklyn thriller “Mother of George.” For “The King,” the company is planning a slow theatrical rollout around the country designed to target communities where Elvis’ legacy looms large, and it’s one of the more intriguing release strategies to emerge from this year’s festival.
Jarecki, who has won two prizes at previous Sundance festivals, knows how outsized expectations for developments that take place at the festival can mess with your head. “Any environment like this is a bit of a bubble,” he said during a conversation on Park City’s Main Street a few hours before “The King” premiered. “So a whole year in the life of a movie goes on in a few days here. It’s up, it’s down, it’s the most popular thing in the world, and then people take potshots at it.” Jarecki last came to Sundance five years ago with his war-on-drugs investigation “The House I Live In,” which won the grand jury prize for best documentary. “I did notice that when I entered the world, there was a certain aura surrounding the film going forward that it had done well at Sundance,” he said. “But then the real world has its own ecosystem, its own rules, and they’re constantly changing.”
Sundance always strenuously avoided being characterized as a marketplace. There have been initiatives developed by the Sundance Institute to help develop projects and aid with release strategies — the Artist Services program played a key role in the self-distribution plan for 2017’s “Columbus,” which went on to gross $1 million in theaters — but founder Robert Redford has never publicly embraced market activity. In 2007, a year after “Little Miss Sunshine” sold to Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million, Redford took the stage at the opening press conference wearing a pin that read “Focus on Film” and told the audience: “I just want to remind people that — despite what the festival’s becoming in a larger sense—in our mind, we programmed it like a festival, not a market.”
He’s not the only Park City perennial putting that perception to bed. Sundance’s marketplace mythology launched to a large degree in 1989, when Steven Soderbergh’s debut “sex, lies and videotape” went to top bidder Miramax and won the festival’s audience award. The buzz pushed the movie into competition at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. Sundance became a focal point for aspirational dealmakers overnight.
When Soderbergh returned in 1990 as part of the festival’s jury, he was less enthused by what he found. “I can’t say I was happy,” the filmmaker said in the waning days of the 2018 festival, which he attended as an executive producer on Jarecki’s movie. “In the space of a year, it had turned into much more of a market than a film festival. I didn’t feel good about that.” Soderbergh has been back innumerable times over the years, and his perception hasn’t wavered. “I don’t subscribe to this idea that a festival that didn’t have a bunch of sales coming out of it is not a worthwhile festival,” he said. “That doesn’t track what I think this is for.”
Jarecki added that the emphasis on strategy over the quality of the program often leads to homogenization. “We live in an era of infinite brochures,” he said. “Most pearls of wisdom comes to you from a group of people who formulate their ideas like that. At the core of it, you sit down and watch some movies that blow your head open, and the selection committee and the festival ethos itself yields a very fascinating tapestry of creativity by people. It’s healthy, it’s edifying, and teaches you where you’re at with you’re art.”
The industry conversations also makes it harder to determine the real talent emerging at the festival. For every Ryan Coogler, whose “Fruitvale Station” was both an emotional sensation and proof of a major storyteller who could reach the masses, there are other filmmakers with less-obvious potential. Josephine Decker, a filmmaker whose experimental narratives have left their mark on the festival circuit in recent years, finally landed in Park City with her NEXT entry “Madeline’s Madeline.” The movie ended the festival without a distribution deal in place, and it’s no wonder; it’s hardly an easy sell. However, the fragmented story of a rebellious teen who throws the disdain she feels for her mother into an avant-garde theater class wowed critics with its sensational depiction of the way the performance represents the girl’s frustration, ultimately overtaking the movie’s narrative.
A few days before the end of the festival, Decker explained her ambitions. “I really had something strong in my mind about performance, where the lead character becomes the person they’re performing,” she said. She spent a year in acting school to prepare for the project and developed her own theater troupe for the cast. The ambitious, slow-burn approach reflects the ambitions of a filmmaker who doesn’t fit cleanly into industry categories, but has developed a promising career on her own terms. “As a human I want to please everybody, but as an artist I clearly don’t, or else I’d be making different work,” she said. “I just wanted to have a lot of artistic freedom, and I knew that with bigger budgets you usually start to lose that.”
Her big festival moment in 2014, when her first two features played at the Berlin International Film Festival. That’s when she realized that festival hype can be damaging to her creative intentions. “I got a little spooked after the films went to Berlin,” she said. “There’s a rhythm you have as an artist, as a person who works a lot, where I have a thing I think I can do to maintain my health and sanity. The six months where the films toured the world was a different kind of work, going to parties and meeting people, was amazing and not something to complain about. But it was exhausting in a very specific kind of way. I got really tired of talking about films I’d already made. I was really wanting to make the next one.”
In the process of making “Madeline’s Madeline,” she realized she was working on a movie that would alienate some people. “In a way this film was very healing because it was me realizing that I can’t make a movie for anyone else,” she said. “There’s nobody who’s going to love me more because of the movie.” In that sense, Decker may be immune to festival hype. She plenty of other projects on her docket, including a proposed biopic of Shirley Jackson, and she recently shot an episode of the Duplass brothers’ HBO show “Room 104,” also acting in the episode opposite another perennial festival favorite, director Onur Tukel (“Catfight”).
The television experience brought Decker to a new level of awareness about the potential for her work. “I went into filmmaking thinking I don’t want to think about money,” she said. “It’s my art and I want to keep it separate from how I make a living. I just don’t sleep. I do it around my job. This is much more sustainable, where the thing you’re going to do anyway, somebody pays you for it.”
Decker’s boyfriend Malik Vitthal, whose “Imperial Dreams” screened at Sundance in 2014, coached her through Sundance expectations. “There are so many moments in filmmaking where you feel like you’ve lost your movie,” Decker said. “It feels a little bit like losing your baby. He’s always like, ‘Just breathe and pray. Just listen and be present. Don’t get too grabby. Things are going to roll the way they’re going to roll.’”