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Does Sundance Film Festival matter in 2023? Insiders say sure


When the Sundance Film Festival final got here to Park City, it was the Before Times. Before COVID-19 drastically altered billions of lives, sure. But additionally earlier than the rigorously cultivated leisure business ecosystem of which the pageant is part was wildly upended.

In addition to halting the in-person model of the annual Utah conclave in 2021 and 2022, in any case, the pandemic induced theatrical filmgoing to stop altogether for a time. And — for a bunch of causes, from public well being issues to the proliferation of streaming platforms — audiences for the arthouse motion pictures which might be the pageant’s lifeblood have been gradual to return to cinemas within the years since. Even after producing final 12 months’s Oscar winners for greatest image (“CODA”) and documentary function (“Summer of Soul”), Sundance returns to Park City on Thursday as the aim of the pageant, and maybe of movie festivals basically, appears ripe for reconsideration.

What, in 2023, is the Sundance Film Festival for?

“It kind of sets the tone for the year,” mentioned Joana Vicente, CEO of Sundance Institute, citing the pageant’s conventional January date and penchant for figuring out and incubating rising expertise. “It’s this opportunity to spotlight all of the amazing new voices, new films that the team is excited about. And we put them out there and it’s like we are setting culture. We are really creating the conversation.”

“Sundance is a place where we convene so many different groups of people,” mentioned Kim Yutani, the pageant’s director of programming. “It’s filmmakers, of course, but then it’s also press, it’s industry, it’s people who just love independent cinema. And to be able to create a program full of new films, in some cases by people who are not household names, to be able to put them into a program and to launch these films with this kind of nexus of constituents, to me that feels like a privilege.”

There’s little doubt that Sundance continues to supply expertise a path to higher-profile initiatives: Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, to call only one, went from successful awards on the pageant in 2020 with the semi-autobiographical “Minari” to directing on the upcoming season of the “Star Wars” streaming sequence “The Mandalorian.” Less clear, although, is the lasting impression of the movies themselves, as Hollywood corporations proceed to seek for the proper mix of streaming and theatrical, common and prestigious, to fill out their movie portfolios.

In current years, streaming providers comparable to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ have paid outsized sums of cash for titles, just for their nontraditional launch methods and unpredictable algorithms to look to melt their impression. Meanwhile, distributors with a stronger funding in theatrical exhibition, comparable to Sony Pictures Classics, Roadside Attractions, Focus Features, Searchlight Pictures, Magnolia Pictures and IFC Films — all sturdy presences at Sundance earlier than the streaming providers — had been pressured to compete with unprecedentedly deep pockets. (Representatives for Netflix, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video declined to remark for this story.)

Now, because the streamers trim the fats for a shifting economic system and the extra established gamers face an unsure theatrical panorama, most everyone seems to be scratching their heads — over what the brand new regular may be, and even how one can outline success.

“The short answer is we don’t know,” mentioned John Sloss, founding father of Cinetic Media, an organization concerned in a number of the largest gross sales within the pageant’s historical past. “We don’t know how the theatrical experience is going to work for specialized movies and is that audience going to come back. I think to a certain extent, the distributors and this market will be the canaries in the coal mine about what the confidence is that that market’s going to return.”

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Sloss added, “I think we’ll learn a lot by what happens at the festival and in the immediate aftermath.”

Tellingly, maybe, probably the most profitable movie from the 2022 pageant will not be grand jury prize winner “Nanny,” bought by Amazon and launched with minimal fanfare on the finish of the 12 months, or viewers award winner “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” likewise acquired by Apple TV+ and launched to a extra muted reception than anticipated. It’s John Patton Ford’s “Emily the Criminal,” that includes a powerhouse efficiency by Aubrey Plaza and a extremely related vein of dead-end frustration. Released in partnership by Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment, the movie made greater than $2 million on the field workplace over the summer time, continued to earn cash because it hit VOD platforms and at last discovered its largest viewers but when it started streaming on Netflix late within the 12 months. The movie additionally earned Gotham and Spirit award nominations and a DGA nom for Ford.

“I don’t think it’s an existential moment, because I think that indie films will survive,” mentioned Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, which shall be at Sundance this 12 months scoping out potential acquisitions and as a producer on Randall Park’s function directorial debut “Shortcomings.” “But certainly old models are being, let’s say, heavily reevaluated.”

The business’s strategy to the pageant modifications with the occasions as certainly because the matters coated by the movies within the pageant, which this 12 months contains motion pictures that grapple with gendered energy dynamics, the immigrant expertise, the battle in Ukraine and a bunch of different hot-button topics.

“We change our business model constantly because the business changes constantly,” mentioned Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which eventually 12 months’s pageant picked up “Living,” starring Bill Nighy, then launched it along with an awards marketing campaign for the lead actor.

“The streamers are going to sort of collide. How many [services] can you subscribe to?” mentioned Bernard. “I think that you’re going to have a new version of a cable package, only it’s going to be your streamer package. Eventually when the fear of COVID is over, the audience will be back.”

Among Roadside Attractions’ earlier Sundance releases (in partnership with Amazon) is 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea,” which went on to make almost $50 million within the U.S. and win two Oscars — a outcome that now appears much less aspirational than out of attain.

“I definitely don’t view it as apocalyptic,” mentioned Cohen. “Part of it has nothing to do with COVID and has nothing to do with streaming. Part of it has to do with the nature of indie cinema, which over the past 30 years has had ebbs and flows, players come and dance with the movies for a while and then move on.

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“Movies are unpredictable,” mentioned Cohen. “So you can have ‘Manchester’ and then you can have 15 [other films] do nothing. And that has nothing to do with streaming or the pandemic.”

A nonetheless from “You Hurt My Feelings,” by Nicole Holofcener, an official choice of the Premieres program on the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

(Jeong Park / From Sundance Institute)

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener got here to the pageant together with her first function, “Walking and Talking” (1996); when her newest, “You Hurt My Feelings,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, premieres this 12 months, will probably be the fourth of her seven function movies to launch at Sundance.

Holofcener has likewise witnessed the ups and downs of the indie movie enterprise over time, having labored with quite a few totally different distributors. Her earlier movie, 2018’s “The Land of Steady Habits,” was launched by Netflix.

“I’m certainly not getting bigger budgets,” mentioned Holofcener. “If I had guessed, ‘Oh, I’ll be making my seventh movie in 2022, would I be getting less than I got from for a movie I made 10 years ago?’ I would not have guessed that. It’s become more competitive and movie-star based, and there’s so much on TV that less movies are getting made. It wasn’t a piece of cake to get mine made, and I was glad to get what I got. I have hopes that my movie will play in the theaters longer than 10 minutes, but I don’t know. And I didn’t really have that fear in the past.”

The movie already has distribution with the premium boutique firm A24, but the exact, insightful grownup dramedy of which Holofcener is a grasp practitioner is precisely the form of film that many audiences are actually reluctant to show as much as theaters to see, having grown accustomed to watching them on streaming at dwelling.

“Of course, my preference would be for people to see it in the theater. Not necessarily an empty theater, but at least they’re not going to get up and take care of their kid or make dinner in the middle,” mentioned Holofcener. “Theaters are preferable, but honestly, I’ll take it anyway I can get it. I think a lot of people watch my films streaming and discover them streaming. They’re not exactly cinematic opuses — it’s not like ‘Babylon,’ or ‘Avatar’ or something you should see on a big screen. It’s OK to watch mine on a large TV. I’ll say large. Sixty-five-inch, no less.”

When Roger Ross Williams received the directing prize for his documentary “Life, Animated” in 2016, he was already an Oscar winner for a brief movie in 2009. Yet, as he put it, “I feel like I wouldn’t even have a career without Sundance.”

Williams’ first scripted function, “Cassandro,” starring Gael García Bernal, has already been picked up by Amazon Prime Video, and Williams acknowledged that its theatrical life could also be temporary.

“I always want people to experience films in a theater because there’s nothing like that collective experience, but I realize in today’s world that that may be challenging for a lot of people,” he mentioned. “So we do have to meet audiences where they are.

“Sundance became this powerful force and put independent filmmaking on the map,” mentioned Williams. “It remains even more important today when huge corporate interests are controlling a lot of the product out there. We are losing space for true independent voices, and Sundance amplifies those voices. When I was there with my first film, I had nothing. I didn’t have a distributor. They just liked my work and invited me.”

Manh in a leopard print dress in a boxing ring kneels and holds his hands to the sky

Gael García Bernal in a a nonetheless from “Cassandro” by Roger Ross Williams, an official choice of the Premieres program on the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

(Amazon Prime Video)

The two pandemic editions of Sundance in 2021 and 2022 featured a web based part that significantly expanded the potential viewers for the pageant, permitting folks to take part with out touring to the aspect of a mountain in Utah. This 12 months, a restricted choice of movies from this system shall be accessible to stream on-line through the second half of the pageant after their in-person premieres.

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“That’s the future,” mentioned Vicente. “At some point, arthouse audiences are aging, and we do need to get younger people excited.”

Yutani has a watch to the long run as effectively, as she assembles each her programming staff and the titles chosen within the pageant in any given 12 months.

“I listen closely to our younger programmers. If they feel passionate about something, that means something,” mentioned Yutani. “I used to think as a programmer you get better with age because you just know more about life and whatnot. But I think that oftentimes programming can be very instinctual, and to know what audiences are going to respond to is a skill, but it’s also something that you feel. Eventually it’s up to me to make the final choice of whether something is in or out of the festival, but it is informed by all of those voices in the room.

“I want to have a festival where there’s room for a film like ‘Living’ and then there are films that are in our NEXT section or our Midnight section that speak to newer audiences who might not even know what Sundance is,” mentioned Yutani. “But if they find out that a film that they love was world premiered at Sundance, then that creates a certain kind of awareness of the work we do.”

Women and men in formal wear dance and smile

A scene from “The Persian Version,” directed by Maryam Keshavarz, premiering as a part of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

(From Sundance Institute)

Writer-director Maryam Keshavarz received the viewers prize in 2011 together with her debut function “Circumstance.” She is again within the U.S. dramatic competitors this 12 months with “The Persian Version,” an autobiographical story of an Iranian American lady navigating either side of her cultural id.

“We all know that where we premiere, the stage that’s set by how we show our work and what environment, affects people,” mentioned Keshavarz on what it means to be again on the pageant. “The fact that they champion women, they champion queer people, I can’t think of any other place that has done it to that degree. And Sundance, not only do they show the work, but they’ve nurtured it from early stages. They support you as a career.”

Indeed, for all of the modifications which have come to the pageant — and with new director Eugene Hernandez taking up subsequent 12 months, Sundance brings with it not solely the scrutiny of a model title, but additionally the reliability..

“Sundance is remarkably faithful, in my opinion, to what they’ve always been,” mentioned Sloss. “And I think everyone involved with it deserves a lot of credit for that. And it is still remains the primary showcase in the world, or at least in the U.S., for discovering new voices. And it is the best documentary showcase and market in the world, period, hands down. And I think that’s where so much of the excitement of Sundance comes from.”


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