For all the existential questions surrounding film festivals (some of which this column explored last week), few would deny their potential for discovering new talent. Similarly, it has become too easy to envision how breakthrough filmmakers can be gobbled by the system. Sundance is America’s greatest discovery festival — but who’s doing the discovering, and to what end?
In recent years, Sundance programming has bred directors of future blockbusters. For many newcomers, that lure is too good to ignore. But any of them contemplating these offers should think twice: Originality can be bankable on its own, and the period after a Sundance debuts is a unique window to capitalize on that opportunity.
Of course, it’s a tricky calculus. The chance to direct a franchise means a built-in global audience at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to guarantee any theatrical viewership. Studio paydays aside, Sundance breakouts could be lured by the prospect of simply getting their work seen.
That decision could come at the expense of further creative development. A second personal feature faces tricky distribution prospects (although VOD isn’t the worst place to land anymore!), but it also allows directors to deepen their talent, and ensures they have a better a chance to retain their voice if and when they go the blockbuster route. Everyone stands to benefit from this waiting game.
Consider the history: Over the past decade, from Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, nine of the movies that hail from the Marvel Cinematic Universe were directed by Park City sensations. Coogler’s ability to transform socially conscious storytelling into a universally resonant narrative in “Fruitvale” made him a natural fit to pull off the same trick with “Black Panther,” but we have yet to see his aesthetic ambitions beyond the IP he influenced.
Waititi came to the MCU with a distinct mentality of his own, honed by Sundance delights “Eagle vs. Shark,” “Boy,” and “Hunt For the Wilderpeople.” His dry but compassionate sense of humor shone through in “Thor: Ragnarok,” representing a conscious synthesis rather than the happy accident of a gun-for hire.
Other MCU gambles left something to be desired: Boden and Fleck’s “Captain Marvel” strained from tonal confusion; Zhao’s “Eternals,” which I didn’t disparage as much as some, seemed intent on reconciling its director’s subdued narrative with the boisterous cadences of the MCU even though they were never meant to be in the same room. Yet Zhao is likely to survive the disappointment in part because she developed her cinematic vision through three earlier features, a feat that culminated in her Oscars for “Nomadland” and will likely thrive beyond it.
In any case, Kevin Feige is the true auteur of current Marvel standards, and even the most singular directors must adhere to the rules of his sandbox. That’s a vulnerable place for a newcomer, especially when they have more stories to tell. Of all the studio overlords, Feige represents a best-case scenario; other franchise gigs are far less likely to give their directors some measure of creative autonomy. (Let us not relitigate the case of Sundance regular Terence Nance and “Space Jam 2.”)
In recent years, it’s been frustrating to discover intriguing new filmmaking visions only to watch them vanish into the anonymity of the studio system. Six years ago, I saw a delightful minimalist genre movie at Sundance called “Cop Car” — a wicked-fun adventure pitched somewhere between “Goonies” and “Duel.” I came out of that screening certain that the filmmaker’s fast-and-loose approach to entertaining storytelling would yield some huge studio gig, then hated myself for thinking that way. A few weeks later, Sony hired director Jon Watts to direct “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
I’ll admit that Watts did a stellar job, bringing much-needed levity to a pop culture figure in desperate need of an energetic reboot. Most recently, his “Spider-Man: No Way Home” saved the 2021 domestic box office. Still, it’s hard to envision that he could ever return to the ingenuity that got him there.
That’s the conundrum newer filmmakers must consider. In recent years, media outlets developed the annoying habit of asking seasoned directors to address the quality of Marvel movies, and whether they would ever consider directing them. (Martin Scorsese says they’re not movies! Ridley Scott says they’re shit! Ooh, do Fincher next!) All this tells us is that wealthy and powerful A-listers are happy to continue building their formidable bodies of original work, thanks. The real value in this asking question lies with more nascent talent. So I asked some recent festival breakouts to weigh in.
“I’d be pretty depressed about being a middle manager holding the handle of a borrowed property,” Jane Schoenbrun told me this week. Their Sundance NEXT hit “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” premiered at last year’s virtual Sundance (it will open in April). Ahead of the 2021 festival, Schoenbrun secured representation from Range Media and law firm Jackoway Austen, which led to the opportunity to produce their next movie with Emma Stone’s production company Fruit Tree and A24.
Schoenbrun is something of a Sundance anomaly. They spent years working for film nonprofits and studied indie trajectories to understand the range of opportunities a Sundance hit creates. “Many talented filmmakers are promised the world right out of the gate and six months later, the world has moved on,” they said. “I think about it carefully as not, ‘What is the maximum power I can obtain right now?’ but, ‘How can I leverage it to make what I want to make?’”
The filmmaker is currently in the midst of a gender transition and said that experience has been guiding their decisions as they develop a range of new projects, including an upcoming adapted screenplay and a TV series.
“My first movie was synonymous with my coming out as an artist,” Schoenbrun said. “Each film feels to me like a different stage of the transition. This is probably true of most artists’ work. It almost becomes a photo album of who they were and their concerns.”
Schoenbrun doesn’t rule out a larger commercial enterprise, but wants to wait. “I was very clear with my manager that it was too early for that kind of work,” they said. “I wouldn’t write it off. But this first film made a name for itself because I was trying to do something different. When filmmakers jump too early into a landscape before they’ve established their own voice, it can ruin them.”
They singled out David Lowery as a role model who can shift between oddball Disney reboots like “Pete’s Dragon” and lo-fi wonders like “Ghost Story,” as well as “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, now in the throes of pre-production for a “Lion King” prequel. “I’m excited to see those movies, but that’s because I already love the original films they’ve made,” Schoenbrun said.
Another COVID-era breakout was Cooper Raiff, the 24-year-old prodigy whose charming college two-hander “Shithouse” premiered at the canceled 2020 SXSW (where it won the top prize even though the festival didn’t happen). Now he’s completed the Dakota Johnson-starring Sundance 2022 entry “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” an expansion of his funny-sad filmmaking sensibilities that doesn’t show an iota of compromise. Raiff told me he wants to develop commercial ideas from the ground up. “I really care about my movies appealing to as many people as possible, but I need to be obsessed with them,” he said.
“Cha Cha” is a low-budget film by industry standards, but it was much larger than “Shithouse,” and meant dealing with financiers and a crew of more than 100. Raiff said he was wary of returning to that scale.
“It did teach me that I wanted to keep my movies as small as possible,” he said. “It has to feel intimate.” His next project is “The Trashers,” based on the story of the ultra-violent minor-league Danbury Trashers hockey team. The project predated Raiff’s involvement. That’s one way to gradually explore a broader arena of options.
Nikyatu Jusu spent 15 years working toward her Sundance debut. Born and raised in Atlanta to Sierra Leonean parents, Jusu grappled with her cross-cultural identity in a series of short films. Her Sundance midnight debut “Nanny,” the gripping story of an immigrant woman tasked with caring for a white family while haunted by memories of her homeland, demonstrates the so-called “elevated genre” chops that studios adore. “You start to get into your own head, you see other people’s success,” Jusu told me this week. “And then you wonder: Is this mainstream enough?”
She was a few years ahead of Zhao at NYU and watched her progression from “Nomadland” to “Eternals” with great interest. In retrospect, Jusu said she was glad that she didn’t gain representation from CAA until later in her career.
“It’s a testament to the hurry-up-and-wait aspect of this industry,” she said. “You’re constantly sprinting to these deadlines, but the industry pays attention on its own time.” She’s angling to go from “Nanny” straight into an adaptation of her vampire short “Suicide By Sunlight,” the project she initially hoped to get off the ground years ago.
“The vast majority of people don’t realize how this really works,” she said. “These conversations start so early in the game that by the time you finish your feature, you kinda know what your next two projects are.”
Unless you don’t. “A lot of amazing first-timers are going from their indie darling to Marvel with nothing in between that feels like they have more creative control. I do want to bring Storm to the screen,” Jusu said, referring to the iconic X-Men character. “I want to work with those bigger tools and budgets. But ideally my first two projects really do feel aligned with my voice before it becomes this machine.”
At this year’s Sundance, I had another “Cop Car” moment while watching Carey Williams’ Amazon Studios film “Emergency.” An alternately tough and hilarious college romp about two Black students who find a white woman passed out in their college dorm, the movie operates as both slick entertainment and sharp commentary on systemic racism. Again, it’s not hard to imagine Williams — gulp — would put that talent on the market for the highest bidder.
He wasn’t so sure. “I remember a friend saying, ‘Dude, shut up, if you got offered a big blockbuster you would take that number,’” Williams told me the other day. “But I will tell you, so much work goes into making a film. Potentially years. You just have to do things you care about deeply. I think for me, I gotta care about it so much that it’s not about the money.”
He has original ideas lined up now that “Emergency” gives him leverage. “There’s a few things that hopefully this gives me space to get made,” he said. “They won’t be blockbusters that make a lot of money, but they’re very personal.” As for Marvel? “Honestly, I can appreciate some of them, but I get bored in those films quite a bit.”
Then again, who knows what happens if Feige actually shows up on your doorstep? That’s always going to be a compliment, but every filmmaker should ask whether their work impacts the culture or contributes to its homogenization. Get that agent, score some paychecks, and keep making those movies — but don’t forget what made them worth making in the first place. That’s not just a sentimental plea; it’s the safest bet for surviving the content storm that threatens to swallow all creativity whole.
Maybe there is a subtle distinction between selling out and embracing the opportunity to grow up within the confines of the system and all of its resources. I welcome readers (especially filmmakers) to make that case if they feel strongly about it, suggest alternate pathways for career growth in a risk-averse market — or just call me an idiot, as long as you can back it up: firstname.lastname@example.org