In 2020, the Sundance Film Festival kicked off with a splashy premiere for Netflix’s new Taylor Swift documentary. When the 2021 edition gets underway on Thursday, there will be none of that. As a virtual affair, this year’s Sundance is a back-to-basics event, one where a plethora of smaller-scale films without distribution will vie both for awards and acquisition.
But don’t let the relative lack of A-list names suggest that sales activity will be sluggish. Amid a dearth of production, streaming arms race, and the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel coming into view, buyers are hungry for new product.
The result is an environment where theatrical distributors are bracing for competition from streamers for titles that are usually their bread and butter, while buyers of all breeds are expecting to consider films that in other years they might have passed on.
“Because COVID has been more impactful than originally anticipated, there is a dearth of active production. Streamers are now in a position where there is a shortage of new product to present to their paying customers,” said Kevin Iwashina, SVP, non scripted advisory, Endeavor Content. “Historically, acquiring films and documentaries was done opportunistically. Because of today’s reality, acquisitions has become a need.”
As has been the case recently, the titles with obvious commercial potential are likely to spawn strong interest from streamers, whose deep pockets will drive bidding to levels unsustainable for theatrical play. That includes Day One movies “CODA” from Sian Heder and Questlove’s “Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” as well as Rebecca Hall’s racial drama “Passing” and Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’ “How It Ends,” featuring an ensemble cast of familiar names.
But discovery titles make up the bulk of a 70-plus-film slate. That’s 40 percent slimmer than last year and the vast majority do not have distribution, meaning buyers should have an easier time diving into corners of the lineup that are usually under-explored.
“It feels like it is a bit of a sellers market, but because the slate is a little more experimental, it will be interesting to see what really moves fast,” said Julie Dansker, head of new content sales at Shout! Studios, which is looking for acquisitions at the festival.
That means a movie as unusual as “Cryptozoo,” Dash Shaw’s hand-drawn psychedelic exploration of 60s counterculture and cryptids, has garnered early buzz from buyers and representation from UTA. And Endeavor has “The Blazing World,” first-time filmmaker Carlson Young’s otherworldly excavation of her subconscious.
Theatrical buyers say they’re eager to explore the lineup, especially as Sundance marks the first festival since the coronavirus vaccine campaign has begun. While TIFF was “wait and see,” Sundance buyers are hopeful that theatrical exhibition could return in earnest later this year.
“Much like the rest of the industry, the implications of the pandemic on the buyers have gone in waves. But this feels like the first time, when you talk to buyers, there’s a clear feeling that theaters are going to reopen,” said UTA’s Nick Shumaker.
In response to price ceilings that are increasingly defined by streamers, distributors say they plan to continue to get creative. It’s an environment that spawned such record-breaking deals as Neon and Hulu’s $15-million-plus purchase of “Palm Springs” and Apple and A24’s $12 million “Boys State” pickup.
“I think that we could see some interesting new models and creative partnerships between the more traditional theatrically focused companies like A24 and Neon for example, and the streamers, who can benefit from working with those companies with strong brands and a reputation for quality not to mention a real expertise in the marketing of independent films,” said ICM’s Oliver Wheeler.
Sundance organizers, with their custom-made virtual platform, hope to recreate the buzz and social experience around a first screening at the Eccles. They’re pushing everyone to watch a film during its live premiere window; there are two to five movies to choose from per window, with five blocks per day over the most of the festival’s seven-day run.
“The speed at which the word-of-mouth gets to buyers and gets to decision-makers — we’re really trying to push it into warp speed,” said Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa. That means that while critics have gotten early access to many films with the idea that their reviews can go live shortly after a premiere ends, buyers have been largely shut out of any early screener access.
Such a system just could work to keep the Sundance’s late-night dealmaking tradition alive during the pandemic; just swap the condo meetings for Zoom sessions.
“We’ve had a lot of requests to prescreen, but we’ve resisted those requests,” Ishikawa said. “We really want to utilize the platform that Sundance has created. If we start to make exceptions, it starts to crack. We really believe in the system and we hope it works. It’s much more robust than any virtual festival has ever done.”
With a new virtual format comes increased access: Anyone in the US with a computer is able to buy tickets for the full lineup. Expect buyers to be combing Twitter to collect feedback; one of this year’s closest analogues to cocktail chatter.
“I’m optimistic that a virtual festival could give us some helpful data on our acquisitions titles. If a more democratized set of viewers around the country all give feedback across social media, we can use this feedback to help with sales,” said Deb McIntosh, SVP, Film Advisory, Endeavor Content.
Below are 12 acquisitions titles that could sell big.
Domestic: ICM Partners and CAA / International: Pathé International
Writer-director Sian Heder’s film follows Ruby, a CODA (child of deaf adults) who finds herself torn between pursing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents when their fishing business is threatened. Heder, in her follow-up to Netflix’s 2016 Sundance acquisition “Tallulah,” has reportedly crafted a crowd-pleasing tearjerker whose commercial promise will easily spark a bidding war between theatrical distributors and deep-pocketed streamers.
Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Worldwide: Cinetic Media
The subject of The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut is the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of concerts attended by 300,000 the same summer as Woodstock. And yet awareness of the so-called Black Woodstock has been minimal — until now. Working with archival footage that’s sat in a basement for five decades, Thompson blends exceptionally rare entertainment (a Stevie Wonder drum solo, a duet between Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples) with an overarching social critique that asks why such celebrations of Black culture have been suppressed for so long. It’s bound to be a powerful combination irresistible for streamers looking to deliver to subscribers a film that’s perfect for this moment.
“John and the Hole”
Worldwide: UTA and ICM
Visual artist Pascual Sisto’s directorial debut will premiere at Sundance after being named a Cannes official selection last year, one of just three Sundance picks that bear the Cannes laurels. Scripted by Oscar-winning “Birdman” co-writer Nicolás Giacobone, “John in the Hole” promises a very unconventional coming-of-age story: It’s set in the unsettling reality of a 13-year-old who holds his family captive in a hole in their backyard. Such strong credentials suggest “John and the Hole” could end up at the top of theatrical buyers’ lists.
“How It Ends”
Worldwide: Endeavor Content
Filmmaking and life partners Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’ collaborations have long been a fixture on the festival circuit, but “How It Ends” marks the first time they’ve shared the directors chair. Filmed in Los Angeles’ empty streets amid the pandemic, the movie follows a woman (Lister-Jones) on a journey to her last party before the world ends. She runs into an eclectic cast of characters on her way, played by Olivia Wilde, Bradley Whitford, Helen Hunt, Finn Wolfhard, Fred Armisen, Pauly Shore, and many, many more. The title is sure to attract strong interest from distributors of the couple’s past projects, including IFC Films and Searchlight, while others will be lured by the commercial appeal of its stacked cast.
Four years after introducing TIFF to his unique hand-drawn style and singular voice with “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” Dash Shaw’s sophomore effort promises to be just as inimitable and even more psychedelic. Set in the counterculture of the 60s, the film follows cryptozookeepers struggling to capture a rare beast when they begin to consider the ethics of keeping these creatures in captivity. Lake Bell, Michael Cera, and Alex Karpovsky lead the voice cast. This is an obvious choice for specialty distributors like GKIDS, but as Netflix showed with “I Lost My Body,” unusual and ambitious animation can have a place on more mainstream platforms.
Worldwide: Endeavor Content
For her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s Harlem renaissance novella about the story of two Black women (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) who each “pass” as white but choose to live on opposite sides of the color line in 1929 New York. The psychological thriller explores the idea of “passing” in racial identity, motherhood, sexuality, and the performance of femininity. It’s the first project from Nina Yang Bongiovi’s multicultural film fund, AUM Group. Among the most anticipated films on the slate, “Passing” could command a high price from a streamer attracted to its timely message or a theatrical distributor with the right plan to launch such a thought-provoking film.
“Eight for Silver”
Worldwide: CAA and ICM
Sean Ellis’ last Sundance film, 2013’s “Metro Manila,” earned an Audience Award. For his latest effort, Ellis once again directs, produces, writes, and shoots, trying his hand at a period horror film centered around a werewolf and a community’s grappling with a very human tragedy. The red-hot genre combined with Ellis’ track record should make the title attractive to the likes of A24, Neon, and IFC.
Domestic: 30WEST/International: Cinephil
Another Cannes selection comes from Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who directs this animated documentary about a child refugee (a former classmate of Rasmussen’s) fleeing his home in Afghanistan to safety in Denmark. Such bold storytelling was already bound to attract the attention of savvy distributors who might be able to position the film as a 2022 Oscar contender in animation, documentary, and international feature categories all at once. It’s an equation made more appealing by the recent announcement that executive producers Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau will lend their voices to the English version.
“On the Count of Three”
Jerrod Carmichael’s directorial debut sees the comedian stepping away from his network-sitcom roots and toward a much darker vision. Rooted in drama and action, the satire revolves around two friends’ suicide pact, exploring race and mental health along the way. With a script from “Ramy” co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch and a cast that includes Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove, and Henry Winkler, “On the Count of Three” has major breakout potential that will interest distributors of all breeds.
“One for the Road”
With his 2012 debut “Countdown” chosen as Thailand’s Oscar entry and his sophomore effort “Bad Genius” a favorite on the festival circuit (before spawning an in-development English remake), Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya’s third feature already showed huge promise. Couple that with the fact that “One for the Road” is produced by Wong Kar-Wai, and this buddy drama/road movie is one of the festival’s most anticipated foreign selections. The film follows a New York City bar owner who returns to his native Thailand to embark on a road trip with his estranged friend. While US distributors erred by passing over “Bad Genius,” “One for the Road” should interest arthouse distributors whose audiences would respond to marketing around Wong’s contribution.
“The Blazing World”
Carlson Young rose to fame on Disney Channel’s “As the Bell Rings,” but her directorial debut “The Blazing World” couldn’t be farther from the House of Mouse’s light and bright programming. Inspired by a series of dreams that led her to “total spiritual surrender” and excavation of childhood trauma, the film follows a woman (Young) who slides deeper and deeper into her twisted inner life as she tries to exorcise her demons. “The Blazing World” will stand out to distributors seeking bold filmmaking.
Amalia Ulman and her debut film landed on UTA’s radar courtesy of fellow multimedia artist Miranda July. While the two share obvious sensibilities — Ulman’s art takes the form of Instagram posts, performances, and an app — the Argentine artist realizes a vision entirely her own in “El Planeta,” which she wrote, directed, and stars in. Set in post-crisis Spain, the film follows a mother and daughter who bluff and grift to keep up the lifestyle they think they deserve, bonding over their impending eviction. The movie could spark the interest of distributors ready to introduce Ulman’s unique perspective to the world.
Domestic: Cinetic/International: Dogwoof
Peabody- and Emmy-winner Jamila Wignot’s latest documentary focuses on Alvin Ailey, the visionary choreographer, and is told in his own words along with a new commission inspired by his life. Wignot’s work is a fixture on PBS, but Ailey’s status as a Black, gay pioneer of racial integration in the arts could make the film interesting to a wide swath of distributors. That’s especially true now that Barry Jenkins is working on an Ailey biopic for Searchlight; the two films could benefit from each other in the same vein as “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex.”
Worldwide: Cinetic and CAA
In the final installment of his trilogy exploring the interconnected narratives of health care, criminal justice, and education in America, Peter Nicks returns to Oakland, where he follows a high school class of 2020 over the course of their senior year. That was always the plan, but the pandemic offered both unexpected conflict for Nicks’ subject and perhaps even more interest from audiences still struggling with a COVID world. Kino Lorber released the trilogy’s second installment, “The Force;” the specialty distributor and its peers will definitely consider the finale, as will others seeking to represent on some of the most pressing issues of our time.
Natalia Almada has made a name for herself with her 2009 Sundance Documentary Directing Award-winning “The General” and as a MacArthur genius-grant recipient. Ambitious in its birth-to-death scope, “Users” explores how humans relate to tech and the role that it plays in society. This evergreen documentary will appeal to theatrical distributors eager to hold it for release when the time is right. The movie is readymade for a big-screen theatrical experience (think “Samsara” and “Koyaanisqatsi”).