The 2023 Sundance Film Festival lineup landed with week with a lot of potential — and not only because of the 110 features expected to premiere in Park City next month. The first in-person Sundance in 2020 (knock on wood) finds America’s most prominent festival returning to a radically different lineup, as distribution models keep shifting and the future of the movies is a bigger question mark than ever before.
However, in an interview with IndieWire this week, Sundance program director Kim Yutani, senior programmer John Nein, and Sundance Institute CEO Joanna Vicente projected confidence about the caliber of the selection and the continuing importance of Sundance to provide a launchpad for filmmakers at the start of the year. (New Sundance director Eugene Hernandez started in November and did not participate in the selection process.)
Here, the trio highlight some of the intriguing titles from this year’s lineup and what to expect from the marketplace.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: How different was the programming process this year given that there was less uncertainty about whether you’d be able to have an in-person festival?
Kim Yutani: Well, last year we were intending to have an in-person process, too. But this time, because of where we are and how we want to communicate together as a team, it was incredibly important for us to get off Zoom and meet in person to have these conversations face to face. What was different this year for us was that Joana was in the room as well. We’ve never had a CEO participate in that process. For us that was a real privilege to have someone we trust in the room with us at this level to hear how we discuss these films.
Joana Vicente: We have such an incredible group of curators under Kim’s steady hand, but it’s amazing to listen to the conversations in person every week, as they take time to speak about each film. They were having incredibly thoughtful conversations about not just each film, but also how each slate looked for each film. It has been an incredible learning experience and privilege to watch that.
The release notes that 28 percent of the lineup is first-time filmmakers this year. What’s the significance of that figure to you?
Yutani: What really motivates us as programmers is finding those voices and the people whose stories we haven’t heard — unusual or fresh faces we are able to give this kind of platform to. This year, on our fiction side we have 22 first-time filmmakers, and 19 of those are women. Those are incredible numbers.
John Nein: We’re always looking for new voices, but it’s impressive how many of them are international this year. Just look at the World Cinema Dramatic competition: There are five extraordinary first-time women filmmakers telling stories in very different ways.
The Premieres section is known for higher-profile titles, and while there are certainly some familiar names, you’ve still got some first-timers there.
Yutani: I wouldn’t say we’re looking for higher-profile films but that the films in this section are reflecting something that is happening within storytelling more broadly right now. When you look at the complete Premieres lineup, you see such a range of stories being told by diverse filmmakers.
Some of them are first-time filmmakers who are working with larger companies, like Searchlight and “Rye Lane.” This is a first-time feature from somebody who comes from a successful music video background. Then you have someone like Nicole Holofcener who had had four or five films at Sundance and is so beloved by our audience is exciting. Same as Ira Sachs. They’re continuing to evolve as filmmakers and find spots at Sundance that makes sense within our program.
A lot of major film festivals have moved away from the virtual component, but Sundance is keeping it intact after the first five days. What was the logic behind this decision?
Vicente: There has been a lot of learning from these past two years and we had a lot of success from the virtual festival. It was far from ideal, but films went on to win Oscars and large audiences that could maybe not afford to come to Park City could see these films across the country. We are absolutely excited to come back in person and have that shared experience, but we also didn’t want to forget what enabled us to survive these few years and bring these films to more diverse, younger audiences who maybe couldn’t afford to come to the festival.
How are you dealing with companies that might not want their films available virtually at all?
Vicente: For us, it’s important to evolve. We didn’t make it mandatory for all the films to be digital. We have a robust offering. All of the competition films are digital, but the others can opt in and out so films with distribution have some flexibility. But I believe things have changed and we need to keep up with these changes by innovating and experimenting. That doesn’t mean next year will be the same. We have to be nimble and adjust. We’re prioritizing in-person for the first five days and then we go virtual. It’s also wonderful to have access to press and industry internationally who — again — might not be able to travel. In the world that we live in, these are things we need to be thoughtful about.
Let’s talk about a couple of films in the U.S. Dramatic competition, which “CODA” swept last year. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” from filmmaker Raven Jackson, is produced by Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski through their company, Pastel, in addition to A24. This past year, that combo found great success supporting “Aftersun.” What should people expect with this one?
Yutani: It’s such a complete artistic achievement by a first-time filmmaker who is really taking risks in telling a poetic story in Mississippi. It’s a film that takes its time in how it unfolds across several decades. I think that having the A24 of it and the Pastel aspect of it brings it attention, but what’s significant about this project is just the complete vision of it.
How about “Magazine Dreams,” which brings Jonathan Majors back to Sundance three years after “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”?
Nein: One of the discoveries of the festival is to see a performer doing something completely different. This film deals with the pressures of wanting to be successful — in this case as a bodybuilder — but it’s told with such compassion and sensitivities around mental health. It’s a really stunning aesthetic vision and craft. It’s a phenomenal performance but it’s also a true auteur vision.
Then you have “Shortcomings,” the directorial debut of Randall Park, whose profile has been growing since he appeared on “WandaVision,” with his adaptation of an Adrian Tomine novel — the second in a year following Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District.”
Yutani: Randall Park has directed a great film. You can tell how connected he is to Adrian’s work and how that inspired him to make this film. They both bring a lot this really unique character — the lead character of Ben, played by Justin H. Min, who is not always likable. He’s complex. He has his own charms that I think will really challenge audiences while making them laugh.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
You’re showing 12 films on the first day, including the shorts program. Last year, the U.S. Dramatic competition film in this slot was “CODA.” Now it’s “Radical.” What was the thinking behind this choice?
Yutani: We wanted to start off with a real bang. “Radical” is directed by Chris Zaza, who made “Padre Nuestro,” which won the Grand Jury Prize several years ago. This is such a heartwarming film about educators helping kids find their potential and uncover their own genius. We were really inspired by this film that takes place in Mexico and has an incredible performance by Eugenio Derbez.
Who, of course, starred in “CODA” — but had to experience that Sundance premiere in a virtual context.
Yutani: Yeah, and we have two films with Emilia Jones, so we’ll have to have a mini-“CODA” reunions.
Another intriguing pick from the U.S. Dramatic Competition is A.V. Rockwell’s “A Thousand and One,” a film that was on our Sundance Wish List. We’ve been hearing buzz about it for a while. How did it turn out?
Yutani: It’s pretty fantastic. We’ve also been tracking A.V. Rockwell since her short film “Feathers.” Honestly, I think her going through the Sundance labs and developing the project in her way was crucial. What she was able to accomplish through the workshops of the labs is really apparent in the film.
Nein: The main performance really stands out — Teyana Taylor is extraordinary. People will know her from her music, but the character she’s playing is so complex and emotional. It is such a moving film.
Among the Premiere titles, I noticed that Cory Finley’s film “Landscape with an Invisible Hand” is produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B team.
Nein: A lot of us really loved this film, which is bending genre storytelling with a real purpose. We’ve seen that in a lot of recent years with horror — and in this case science fiction. This is an alien story you’ve never seen before, and it’s working towards a different kind of goal. It’s two teenagers who save the world, but it’s a way of looking at family and social issues in the country at the same time.
In fact, I’d say that’s true of several films in this year’s festival, including “Pod People.” It’s a social satire but uses this sci-fi world to talk about commodification, technology’s relationship to our lives, feminism, and this giddy infatuation we have with convenience. These films are both entertaining audience films and at the same really important.
courtesy of Sundance Institute
“Fairyland” stands out in this section because it’s based on a best-selling book.
Yutani: I’ve been tracking it for quite some time because I was a fan of the book. To see it finally get made and have such a poignant father-daughter relationship under such unusual circumstances was really satisfying. Scoot McNairy plays a very unconventional father — an openly gay parent at a time where that was not exactly the norm, and that is very signifiant. There’s also his daughter who, in her older age, is played by Emilia Jones, and I think she brings a real warmth to this film. They really nail the ’70s and ’80s.
Another opening night film is the documentary on Little Richard. What does it tell us that we don’t already know?
Yutani: It really is Little Richard as you’ve never seen him. Everybody knows his music. But to see what a complex individual he was — just peeling back the layers to see just how extraordinary it is that this queer musician who is iconic, but was not known as a queer artist at the time, you understand how he has influenced all parts of rock and roll. That is something we really wanted to highlight.
Over in NEXT, you’re opening with a documentary — which this section only recently started to include — about “Kim’s Video.” I can see why someone would want to make a documentary about this legendary video store, but what makes it a NEXT kind of movie?
Yutani: We’re actually showing four documentaries in NEXT this year. “Kim’s Video” in particular I expect to be a curiosity for a lot of our audiences. I think the way that this film plays with genre and form in such a fun way leads you on this journey through Italy to really uncover this story of a New York institution that has almost become like a film school for so many people. That’s something that we as programmers really responded to. I expect you will embrace it. Also, “KOKOMO CITY” is telling this really unapologetic and authentic story about trans sex workers from the viewpoint of a trans filmmaker. It’s a beautiful black and white film. When I saw it I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Nein: And you have “Fremont.” You watch this film and just appreciate the aesthetic vision and storytelling. It’s about an Afghan woman who comes to the United States. The way it unfolds has a special quality that’s hard to put into words.
courtesy of Sundance Institute
This is a weird year to talk about sales prospects, but let’s talk about sales prospects. Nobody knows what works commercially these days, especially when it comes to specialty films. Having said that, what might attract buyer interest?
Yutani: There are so many films that are poised to be acquired at the festival. As we start talking through the films we’re considering, we talk about the balance of the films that are in the program. I think that there are 10 films in our U.S. Dramatic Competition and 10 films in U.S. Documentary Competition that are really ripe for acquisition. That’s not even include Premieres. It’s across every section.
You have to give me a little more than that!
Yutani: I suspect that “Magazine Dreams” is going to do really well. Also, “Theater Camp” is among lighter fare in our program, and people are really craving comedies. Of course, the genre films always do well. There are some incredible films on that level that are itching to be bought.
Nein: It’s harder to predict the appetite of the acquisitions market because you have films that don’t have the traditional mechanism for getting out there. I look at an acquisitions title like “Accidental Getaway Driver” in that context. Half the film is in Vietnamese but this music video director has an extraordinary vision and it’s a beautiful film with a great performance. I’m very excited to see the market for these films that are outside of the traditional marketplace expectations.
How about awards prospects? After “CODA” launched at Sundance last year, it seems likely that people will be looking for a future Best Picture contender.
Yutani: There are films poised to break out in their own ways. Given our past success with some of our international films that are hoping for nominations this year, and our docs of course, yes, people will be looking for those this year.
Nein: The way that we think about it is different. We’ve mentioned some possibilities in the context of performances. Look at the films with Cynthia Erivo and Jonathan Majors. They’re worthy.
Vicente: We’re excited that audiences are craving more regional voices with unexpected films coming out of left field. People are more open to global cinema and we’re so excited about our international offerings. This is a really good time to shine light on new talent. There are different methods of success — from a big sale to just a meaningful connection with audiences to launching a filmmaker or getting a great review. Success can mean all kinds of things.
How many films do you expect to add in the weeks ahead?
Yutani: We always have some surprises.