Sundance Embraces Streaming, Even As It Weighs the Risks

Netflix premiered three titles on Sundance 2020 opening night, but the Sundance Institute calls algorithmic curation "dangerous."
Lana Wilson and Taylor Swift'Miss Americana' film premiere, Arrivals, Sundance Film Festival, Park City, USA - 23 Jan 2020
Lana Wilson and Taylor Swift 'Miss Americana' film premiere, Arrivals, Sundance Film Festival, Park City, USA - 23 Jan 2020
Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock

It’s always an honor to be one of the titles that premiere on opening night at the Sundance Film Festival, and this year there were eight. Three are available for acquisition: NEXT selection “Summertime,” Midnight’s “Bad Hair,” and World documentary “The Painter and the Thief” The other five were already spoken for: Music Box had “The Perfect Candidate,” while Netflix had two documentaries and a feature, and Showtime offered the first four episodes of a docuseries.There’s the Barack and Michelle Obama executive-produced “Crip Camp,” the Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana” and the French-language “Cuties,” along with Showtime’s “Love Fraud.” And with that outsized presence of what once seemed anomalous — TV and streamers, at Sundance! — there’s a measure of reckoning for the festival long defined as a marketplace for theatrical distributors to pick up indie breakouts and low-budget hidden gems.

Neil Jacobson, Denis Jacobson. Film Subjects Neil Jacobson, left, and Denis Jacobson attend the Netflix Premiere of CRIP CAMP at Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah Netflix Premieres CRIP CAMP at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, USA - 23 Jan 2020
Neil Jacobson and Denis Jacobson attend the Netflix Premiere of CRIP CAMP at Sundance Film FestivalMatt Sayles/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Sundance itself is well aware of the potential discrepancy. In the Day One press kit — this year’s online substitute for the traditional press conference — Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam raised concerns about an entertainment industry increasingly steered by what streamers like.

“When it comes to media and storytelling, audiences have seemingly infinite choices in what they consume. And there is a lot of great work getting made. But increasingly, content is being selected by only a handful of globally dominant entities and served up by algorithms designed to keep you watching,” she said in a video.

“So when choices about what to watch are made for people by forces that aren’t always visible and can’t be controlled, not only do we miss out on challenging ideas and great art‚ it’s dangerous. This is a moment that demands our participation as audiences, as artists, and as citizens.”

At the same time, many of those algorithmic companies are featured at this year’s festival. After enjoying the Sundance buzz, Netflix will push “Miss Americana” to its millions of customers when the documentary is available to stream January 31 — before the festival is even over. Other streamers that hope to reap the benefits of Sundance marketing include the premiere of the Disney-owned Hulu’s “Hillary” and Disney+ kids’ movie “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” directed by Sundance vet Tom McCarthy.

IndieWire asked Putnam if she saw the presence of so many high-profile streaming titles at the festival as a point of friction. She replied via email:

Sundance was founded to support independent artists and support films with value outside of clear commercial success, and we still have that responsibility today. Especially in an environment with so many options and promotional forces, it’s critical to help audiences discover new voices and unique viewpoints that spark conversations and imagination. Our curation does just [that] — we showcase projects based on what’s culturally resonant, artistically interesting, and posed to break out in different ways. The growing availability of streaming platforms means that these films are more available to audiences than ever before, and we are thrilled when a Sundance project finds its way to audiences via those channels. 

Given the sheer volume of streaming players, their festival presence is no longer a sideshow. Still to come are HBO Max and Peacock; Quibi launches in April, but its executives are here seeking talent who can produce episodic movies and documentaries for its new platform.

Ultimately, the medium is still the message. The rising tide of streaming outlets can simply mean new homes for great films like the Oscar-nominated “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story,” but they also can influence the work that creators choose to make — especially as specialized box-office struggles with long-term decline.

Take, for instance, “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” the three-part documentary series on Netflix that explores the late New England Patriots player’s conviction for the murder of Odin Lloyd. That didn’t start as a Netflix series; it was a 90-minute feature by director Geno McDermott that he self financed after failing to find interested outside backers who may not have seen its theatrical potential.

And, that wouldn’t be wrong: The film was rejected by multiple festivals before it premiered in 2018 at DOC NYC as “My Perfect World: The Aaron Hernandez Story.” However, it did catch the attention of Netflix, whose executives hypothesized the story could be told even better with a longer runtime. Working with Oscar-winning editor Angus Wall (“The Social Network”), McDermott settled on a three-part series, double the length of the original cut. It premiered on Netflix January 15 to rave reviews.

As viewers indicate a preference for bingeable, immersive series like “Killer Inside,” festivals are also moving in that direction. Sundance launched its own Indie Episodic section two years ago, and it continues to expand. This year there are eight selections, such as “Awkward Family Photos” (families featured on recreate their original photos, forcing them to reconcile their past) and “The Ride,” executive produced by Sundance alums Mark and Jay Duplass (a ride-share driver helps passengers let go of negative thoughts, whether they want his help or not).

“We’re excited to showcase stories from a broad array of perspectives and independent creators, which means we need to evolve our platform to reflect an evolving form,” Putnam told IndieWire. “That’s why we created the Special Events section and, more recently, Indie Episodic — as responsive means to platform great stories, regardless of format.”

Justin Simien'Bad Hair' film premiere, Arrivals, Sundance Film Festival, Park City, USA - 23 Jan 2020
Justin Simien at the ‘Bad Hair’ film premiereMJ Photos/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, independent films without distribution continue to have a big place in Sundance’s Day One selection. One of this year’s buzziest titles is “Bad Hair,” Justin Simien’s horror satire set in 1989 following an ambitious young woman who gets a weave to succeed in music television, only to find that her hair gets a life of its own. The packed screening included both streaming and theatrical buyers: Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Bleecker Street, Neon, Searchlight, Magnolia, IFC, and A24.

It’s his first film since his 2014 Sundance breakthrough, “Dear White People,” which got a theatrical release from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. However, Simien is likely best known for that film’s four-season Netflix adaptation.

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