For 34 years, Robert Redford opened the Sundance Film Festival with a freewheeling press conference in which he juggled questions from the press. This year, after a brief introduction, he stepped aside to let the programming staff handle the hard part. The move had symbolic resonance: Redford is the Sundance’s founder and figurehead, but the festival’s reputation has evolved far beyond the long-standing appeal of the white male artist. So has the lineup.
Thirty years ago, Steven Soderbergh created the Sundance breakout with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape;” a decade later, the honor fell to Darren Aronofsky with “Pi.” While those success stories remain key aspects of the festival’s mythology, they don’t carry the same charge for audiences, or for the marketplace.
However, Sundance remains vital. Reflecting the concerns of the industry as a whole, the festival has moved beyond the notion of diversity as a buzzword to advance toward a new identity altogether. In 2019, Sundance doesn’t look like Robert Redford’s film festival; it looks like the future.
It helps that 53 percent of the U.S. Dramatic Competition titles come from women directors, but it’s also noteworthy that some of the most exciting titles in the lineup came to Park City from other countries. The festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition — which struggled for years to break through Sundance’s American-focused ranks — includes promising work like the Colombian jungle thriller “Monos,” and “Souvenir,” from veteran British filmmaker Joanna Hogg (long overdue for recognition in the U.S.). Even the U.S. Dramatic competition includes buzzy titles that stretch beyond American borders, including Chinese-born director Lulu Wang’s anticipated “The Farewell.”
Meanwhile, film culture has become more diffuse, and disruptors like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple have injected great uncertainty into the market. These deep-pocketed companies could engage in ferocious bidding wars for the festival’s most commercial titles — or, they could sit on the sidelines and watch their scrappier competitors sort things through.
Veteran distributor Mark Urman, who passed away suddenly earlier this month, established an ethos that many buyers may consider embracing as the program continues its evolution. “People either want that which is comfortingly familiar or they want that which is bracingly new,” he said, years ago. “Comfortingly familiar is pre-sold, it’s sequel, it’s adaptation of best-selling novels, it’s big stars, and identifiable genres. All the things Hollywood stands for that we love when they’re done well. We don’t do that. We do the bracingly new.”
Urman would probably have enjoyed this program. Anyone sorting through Sundance’s lineup seeking quality will find this year’s program offers many access points. There may not be a single, universally beloved sensation, but that idea feels less appropriate to the current moment than the prospect of many different options for many different people.
Of course, hyped documentaries like “American Factory” and “Where’s My Roy Cohn” will generate buyer interest with their timely subject matters, while evident crowdpleasers like the Mindy Kaling-scripted “Late Night” will get audiences fired up about sharply entertaining alternatives to Hollywood formula.
But this side of Sundance runs like clockwork. The real narrative of the 2019 festival lies with the sheer range of films on display and the equally fragmented ways in which they may continue to find audiences in the months ahead. At the end of the day, Sundance doesn’t need Robert Redford to introduce the highlights of the lineup, but it needs audiences willing to look beyond the same old stories. Until then, the future’s hiding in plain sight.