It’s Time to Destroy the Old Myth of the Sundance Breakout for a New One (Column)

Few Sundance careers are born overnight. But that doesn't mean breakout status is unobtainable.
Teyana Taylor embraces Aaron Kingsley Adetola in a still from "A Thousand And One"
"A Thousand and One"
courtesy of Focus Features

In the tiny pocket of relief between Oscar campaigns and nominations, the Sundance hot takes begin.

The questions blur together: After two years of a virtual festival, does anyone still want to hustle in the snow? Why bother making the trek when you can stream most of the lineup from the non-icy confines of a couch? With the outcry over last year’s embarrassing “Jihad Rehab” debacle still fresh — dear lord, can we move on yet? — have progressive politics ruined the whole process? (Don’t get me started on the loaded, right-wing propagandistic implications of the word “woke.”) Now that every movie without Tom Cruise or Na’vi faces dire prospects at the box office, what are doing here anyway?

Sundance hype is performative. Once again, it’s viable to pretend that movies dominate the culture. Above all, much as dazzling red carpets at Cannes sustain the fantasy that international arthouse cinema commands the world stage, so too does Sundance make it possible to believe in the myth of the Sundance breakout.

Here’s the thing: There’s really no such thing.  Most of the movies you’ll hear about — the bidding wars, the standing ovations, the overnight successes — those moments were engineered months or even years in advance.

One of the most enthusiastic responses to a filmmaker gracing the Eccles stage happened in January 2016, before the movie even screened. It was Nate Parker’s eventual Grand Jury Prize winner “The Birth of a Nation,” and if you don’t remember how all that turned out, consider yourself lucky. Needless to say, Parker had been hitting agencies well in advance of his Sundance premiere and the room was packed with friendlies. Everything about the moment was preordained except the aftermath.

There are plenty more hopeful examples of Sundance breakouts, but the festival’s myth of discovery stretches back to Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape” in 1989 and hasn’t been viable for ages. In most cases, filmmakers anointed as major newcomers were set on that path by industry forces and earlier benchmarks got them to the festival in the first place.

With Sundance as we know it (more or less) back in action, it’s time to destroy the myth of the Sundance breakout once and for all in favor of a new one that incorporates one missing ingredient — time, time, time. It can take anywhere between six months to five years to really assess the impact that a Sundance moment can have for one movie and its associated talent.

Yes, that’s a long time, which explains the apoplectic declarations of a business in free fall. Over the years, too much about the metrics of a Sundance success have been tied into the immediate aftermath, and careers don’t happen in an instant. Most directors made industry inroads long before their first features — acclaimed shorts, music videos, talent agents who hype them up as the next big thing — and Sundance glory arrives as the culmination of that first crucial chapter. The next one is just as vital: It determines not only the life of the movie, but also what the filmmaker does next. To that end, even low-key successes on the ground at Sundance can yield stronger returns down the line.

Last year, I launched this column by lamenting the many promising newcomers who leveraged Sundance appeal into blockbuster gigs that buried their talent. Some readers in the community found this to be a tone-deaf complaint given that people need to get paid. Sure, but that doesn’t make it sting any less. Achieving true breakout status in this complicated era requires a long-term investment in leveraging festival success.

The necessity of incubation occurred to me as I canvassed various new directors making their way to Park City this week. Most of them cited movies and filmmakers who emerged from the festival over the past decade, names like Daniels, Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, and the Safdie brothers. Nobody talked about Aronofsky, Soderbergh, or Tarantino: The Sundance auteurs of the ’90s and aughts now firmly belong to an earlier generation.

All of their role models delivered on their  Sundance promise and found ways to tell stories on a bigger scale that the industry hadn’t seen before. Diversity may be a buzzword, but Sundance’s diversification of the industry hasn’t been aspirational. DuVernay’s 2012 Best Director win for her poignant prison drama “Middle of Nowhere” had a modest shelf life, but it led her to develop a brand of empowering Black narratives as both director and producer. Coogler’s Grand Jury prize for “Fruitvale” was that movie’s finest moment before it fizzled in theaters, but it catapulted him into Hollywood on his own terms. By the time Daniels brought “Swiss Army Man” to Sundance, they were already among the preeminent music-video directors of their generation; the so-called “farting corpse” movie that sold to A24 at Sundance 2016 set them on the path to make leading Oscar contender “Everything Everywhere All at Once” with that same studio over five years later.

Priya Kansara appears in Polite Society by Nida Manzoor, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by the press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
“Polite Society”Parisa Taghizadeh/FOcus Features

“Seeing Michelle Yeoh smash things in that movie with the Daniels doing all these weird and different things was so exciting,” director Nida Manzoor told me this week. Her endearing Sundance midnight entry “Polite Society” is a crowdpleaser waiting to happen, as it transforms the usual tropes of a coming-of-age saga into martial arts comedy. The story of a British-Pakistani teen who grows suspicious of her older sister’s arranged marriage, it careens between action and heartfelt family bonding with a carefree energy that’s equal parts Bollywood and Edgar Wright (who advised on the movie).

Manzoor, who’s already writing the second season of her series “We Are Lady Parts,” has achieved breakout status regardless of how her screenings go. The movie was produced by Focus Features, a subsidiary of Universal, which also holds the streaming rights to her show on Peacock. She wrote the script for the movie a decade ago, fell into TV directing (including some episodes of “Doctor Who”), then got to pitch her own show.

“I wanted to make a big action spectacle with a brown girl in closeup,” she said. “When I realized how I expensive it was I put it in the drawer. I wanted to preserve the action and the spectacle.”

Like Daniels, Manzoor’s breakout status predated her Sundance arrival by several years. Other Sundance arrivals built to this moment through the festival’s own labs ecosystem. That includes another Focus-produced feature, A.V. Rockwell’s tragic gentrification two-hander “A Thousand and One,” which revolves around a troubled woman who kidnaps a foster child in Harlem. Made from the mold of grand and gritty New York stories from “Mean Streets” era, it makes up for missed time by adding the perspective of a struggling Black woman to that tradition.

“I wanted to make more of a New York heartbreaker than a love letter,” Rockwell said when I chatted after a screening of the movie. While she cited Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee as key influences, “success for me is being able to do that in my own way,” she said, “with longevity.  I haven’t seen a lot of examples of that for Black women at the highest level.” (The legacy of Sundance “breakout” Julie Dash, who was acclaimed at Sundance and struggled to make another feature after 1991’s “Daughters of the Dust,” looms large in this sentiment.) “Going from making one or two if they’re lucky to making movies consistently doing it,” Rockwell said, “that is what success really looks like to me.”

“Mutt”Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Vuk Lungulov-Klotz struck a similar note when considering the ramifications of his debut “Mutt.” I reached out to the 28-year-old director after watching his own endearing and heartfelt New York movie coming to Sundance this year, which makes representational strides by inhabiting the day in the life of a Latino trans character. Lungulov-Klotz told me he was inspired to explore queer storytelling from his perspective after watching Andrew Haigh’s delicate gay romance “Weekend” back in 2011.

“For me, that was the first film that depicted intimacy between a couple outside of the Hollywood perspective,” he said. “The tenderness was so incredible.” At the same time, he was energized by the Safdies and their energetic approach to reckless protagonists consumed by the urban hustle around them. “Mutt” functions as a kind of corrective to the cis-male-dominated domain of masculine anti-heroes. Like “A Thousand and One,” it’s a true movie of the moment, and suggests a filmmaker with more stories to tell.

“When I was first pitching it, there weren’t any trans narratives,” Lungulov-Klotz said. “Now people aren’t turned off by the idea. I think they’re actually eager to catch up on all the things we haven’t seen. I’m excited to use this as a launching pad for that.”

In all of these conversations, filmmakers were more invested in how to leverage Sundance acclaim rather than seeing the festival as an end unto itself. Buyers and sellers looking for a Sundance hit may want to consider the impact of long-term investments. A movie with the potential to become even a modest hit now could yield far greater rewards in the future.

For now, a little overzealous hype at high altitudes could help motivate the industry to stay in the game even if it sometimes feels like a losing prospect. Crabby veterans ready to write off the movies only contribute to their decline. A little optimism — accompanied by smart decisions, of course! — will go far in a high-stakes environment. So will the acknowledgement that nobody really knows what will succeed down the line. No matter the challenges in getting these movies seen, the true barometer for their success will be a big fat TBD. For now, a little naïveté to enjoy the ride can go a long way.

As usual, I encourage feedback to the ideas in this week’s column via email:

If you’re at Sundance, I encourage you to join me and my colleagues for a live recording of our weekly Screen Talk podcast at the Canada Google lounge on Main Street this Monday, January 23, at 1 p.m. MT. Swing by, ask questions, and please say hello.

Last week’s column about TCM and the curation of classic movies in the streaming era elicited some welcome feedback. Here’s a sampling:

I’d say TCM’s best bet would be starting its own streaming service outside their corporate owners’ umbrella, but could they try it again and succeed? Is there room for a competitor to the Criterion Channel? The comments from filmmakers about the need to turn to piracy to see films from the past are sadly true.

—Steven Erickson

I’m a huge fan of TCM! But naturally their library tapers off beyond the 70s. We need a TCM2 for films from 1980 on. Soon, all those 90s/early 2000s indies will be as lost as most silent-era films are today.

—Dan Mirvish

Excellent article. Also of note is the amazing work of Sandra Schulberg at IndieCollect along with the “World Cinema Project” and “To Save and Protect” list.

—Rachael Shaprio

Buy Criterion discs. Streaming, by definition, can go away.

—Todd Smith

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.