Some of this year’s buzziest titles premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which opens Thursday, come to Park City with distribution in hand. It’s a growing trend that agents, sellers, and buyers have mixed feelings about — one that some distributors say makes for a more challenging market and forces them to think outside the box and give a second look to films they may have passed over.
But there are still plenty of movies with promise for distributors in all segments of the industry. Buyers are gearing up for what they expect to be a competitive market. There’s mainstream theatrical potential in films like “Worth,” about the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, while competitive buyers — particularly streamers — could seize the opportunity to build a brand around a new voice like Radha Blank, the star, writer, and director of “The 40-Year-Old Version.”
After dominating this year’s Oscar nominations, Netflix will continue its disruption when it premieres eight films at the festival — the most of any distributor. That includes the high-profile Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana” and the Joan Didion adaptation “The Last Thing He Wanted” from “Mudbound” director Dee Rees starring Anne Hathaway, Willem Dafoe, and Ben Affleck.
Netflix has a strong preference for documentaries with all rights available. It added an eighth film to its Sundance slate last week when it acquired the documentary about Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado, “Mucho Mucho Amor.”
A24, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, HBO, Bleecker Street, and Fox Searchlight are all coming to the festival with two films each, while Showtime and National Geographic Documentary Films each have one.
The pre-festival state of affairs looks similar to the Toronto International Film Festival, where Netflix screened eight titles, including the Oscar-nominated “Marriage Story” and “The Two Popes.” That was a sluggish market for mid-range acquisitions, but one that proved bountiful for arthouse and international distributors like Kino Lorber, which purchased Italian historical drama “Martin Eden” and Kantemir Balagov’s “Beanpole,” the International Feature Oscar nominee from Russia.
The jury’s still out on the strategy of other streamers. Apple has been busy signing deals with big-name creators like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Alfonso Cuarón, and “Little America” co-showrunner Lee Eisenberg, and word is the tech giant wants splashy festival buys to stock its fledgling Apple TV+.
It could use a gamechanger: The company’s lone Sundance buy last year, the documentary “Hala,” was not as buzzy as it hoped, and late last year it coped with a PR stumble and smashed awards dreams with “The Banker.” The company initially headed to Sundance 2020 with the Russell Simmons sexual assault expose “On the Record” through its deal with Oprah, but that fell through after the talk show host pulled out.
Agents says WarnerMedia’s buyers will be at the festival, as the distinction between an HBO buy versus a buy for the soon-to-launch HBO Max streaming service comes into clearer focus. At Toronto, the prestige cabler (not its streamer sibling) broke records with the near-$20 million acquisition of “Bad Education.” That title won’t get a theatrical release, but will surely please subscribers with its all-but-guaranteed availability as part of the $15 monthly HBO Max subscription.
Meantime, as NBCUniversal readies to launch its Peacock streaming service, questions remain about how that might play into its festival strategy. Chairman Steve Burke said last week that the service would be home to “every single movie ever made by Universal,” which could mean its subsidiary Focus Features will be on the lookout for more to stock the digital shelves.
Here are 12 narrative features that buyers are tracking at this year’s festival.
Domestic sales: UTA, ICM/international sales: MadRiver Pictures
Sara Colangelo is back after winning the 2018 Sundance Directing Award for “The Kindergarten Teacher,” this time with a film focused on D.C. lawyer Kenneth Feinberg and his appointment as special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The film, starring Michael Keaton in the lead role, follows Feinberg as he fights off cynicism, bureaucracy, and the politics of his task of putting a dollar figure to families’ suffering follow the terrorist attacks. The prestige film, which offers an unfamiliar look of a very familiar tragedy, has the potential to sell big to a distributor looking to bring it in front of a wide theatrical audience.
Another Sundance Directing Award winner, Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) returns to the festival with his long-awaited second feature, a family drama that follows Jude Law and Carrie Coon as an American entrepreneur and his wife who relocate to London to take advantage of the Thatcher-era economy. They’re plunged into despair amid unfamiliar surroundings and an unaffordable life in an eerily isolated English manor. Though its commercial prospects remain to be seen, buyers are intrigued by the appealing blend of original story and high-profile cast.
Dominic Cooke (“On Chesil Beach”) directs Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, and Jessie Buckley in the true story of a British businessman who gets unwittingly recruited to work with a Soviet officer to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cumberbatch remains a big enough draw for buyers to perk up, while the substantial historical backdrop has potential to appeal to sophisticated moviegoers.
Writer-director Julie Taymor (“Frida,” “Across the Universe”) offers a non-tradition biopic on feminist icon Gloria Steinem with a cast playing the journalist and activist at four different points in her life: the youngest Gloria is played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong (“It Chapter Two”), teenage Gloria by Lulu Wilson (“Annabelle: Creation”), young adult Gloria by Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”), and the 40-plus Gloria by Julianne Moore. The cast is rounded out by Bette Midler as Women’s Movement leader Bella Abzug and Janelle Monáe as “Ms.” magazine co-founder Dorothy Pitman Hughes. All international rights have been sold, making the film a solid choice for a major U.S. studio; though it remains unclear how well Taymor has executed her tricky approach, Steinem’s own brand is powerful and resonant enough alongside this starry cast to make this one hold a lot of appeal to buyers at this year’s festival.
Writer-director Miranda July directs Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, and Debra Winger in a film about a family of low-stakes grifters who invite a chipper young woman into their insular clan and as a result see their whole world turn upside down. July’s third feature could attract the likes of “The Future” distributor Roadside Attractions or IFC Films, which released “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” But as July’s star has risen in the decade since “The Future,” bigger players could be interested too: The film counts Annapurna Pictures and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment among its producers.
“The 40-Year-Old Version”
Competitive buyers and streaming outfits looking to establish a lasting relationship with the next fresh voice will want to take a look at writer-director-producer Radha Blank’s feature debut, which follows a down-on-her-luck New York playwright (Blank) who decides to salvage her artistic voice by becoming a rapper and recording a mixtape at age 40. Blank is a playwright herself and her screen credits include writing and producing the Netflix adaptation of “She’s Gotta Have It.” She was named this year to Variety’s list of 10 Directors to Watch. Lena Waithe (“Master of None”) is among the producers. While some buyers are wary of the 129 minute runtime, the crowdpleaser is already generating a lot of interest ahead of its Park City premiere.
Justin Simien’s debut “Dear White People” turned out to be a breakout hit at Sundance, and was acquired by Lionsgate and Roadside before spawning the successful Netflix series. His sophomore feature is the horror satire set in 1989 following an ambitious young woman who gets a weave to succeed in music television. But her flourishing career might come at a great cost when her hair gets a life of its own. The irresistible cast includes Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, and Laverne Cox. Opening the festival’s midnight section, it promises a satiric ride reminiscent of the Sundance premiere of “Get Out” from several years ago.
“The Night House”
Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Sarah Goldberg (“Barry”) star in this Midnight Section thriller about a widow who begins to uncover her recently deceased husband’s disturbing secrets. This may end up as an easy buy for Netflix, given its success with director David Bruckner’s solo feature debut, “The Ritual,” or genre-focused distributors eager to pounce on the midnight highlights from this year’s lineup.
After carefree Nyles (Andy Samberg) and reluctant maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti) have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated after they are unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other. Samberg’s enough of a familiar face to make this accessible comedy appeal to buyers seeking lighthearted material.
The feature debut from “Queen Sugar” writer Channing Godfrey Peoples follows Turquoise, a former beauty queen who is now a hardworking single mother, as she prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the Miss Juneteenth pageant. While hardly one of the biggest premieres in Park City this year, it has breakout potential at the festival that could stimulate interest among buyers who want to get into business with its young director.
“The Nowhere Inn”
Endeavor Content, Paradigm
Musician St. Vincent sets out to make a documentary about her music with a goal of revealing and reveling in the unadorned truth behind her on-stage persona, but finds notion of reality, identity, and authenticity grow increasingly distorted and bizarre after she hires a close friend to direct the movie. This is not a documentary, but the acting debut of St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) playing herself, directed by Bill Benz (“Portlandia,” “At Home with Amy Sedaris”), and written by and starring Carrie Brownstein and Clark. The strange hybrid project premieres in the midnight section, where edgier buyers like A24 and NEON may be especially intrigued by its meta commentary on rock stardom.
Celebrated commercial director Edson Oda is making his feature debut with a script he wrote developed through the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program Labs. The film centers around a reclusive man (Winston Duke, “Black Panther”) who interviews human souls (Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård, and Benedict Wong) looking for a chance to be born in this intriguing and surreal film. Expected to be among the highlights of the U.S. Dramatic Competition, “9 Days” has already attracted interest from many buyers even as it remains a real question mark until its premiere.