What occurred at this year’s Sundance with regards to major changes, significant failures, and major transactions?

What occurred at this year’s Sundance with regards to major changes, significant failures, and major transactions?


The high expectations set by the previous Sundance film festival left many feeling disappointed with this year’s edition. There was a common concern expressed on social media and in conversations about whether there would be a standout film this year. Last year, there were several noteworthy films such as the workplace thriller “Fair Play,” the erotic drama “Passages,” the horror film “Talk to Me,” the romantic comedy “Rye Lane,” the timely documentary “20 Days in Mariupol,” the mother-son music story “Flora and Son,” and the decade-spanning romance “Past Lives.” These films created a buzz that lasted throughout the year, making it a particularly strong lineup for Sundance’s big in-person return.

The event in Utah this year was less exciting, with some people suggesting that the weaker lineup was due to the 2023 strikes that prevented many productions from happening. However, there were still some great films among the less impressive ones, and major multimillion deals were made. The strikes not only affected the lineup, but also increased the demand from buyers who needed films to fill their release schedules. While there may not have been a film as popular as Past Lives, this year’s selection continued to move away from relying on big-name stars to attract attention. This was a relief after a period of lackluster projects led by A-listers, which took spots away from smaller, more deserving films.

A major highlight of the festival was a film starring a well-known actor, but it also provided an opportunity to see them in a new light, truly embracing their authentic self. Will Ferrell, a versatile comedian whose previous Sundance movie, the poorly received remake Downfall, failed to make an impact, takes on a heartwarming cross-country journey in Will & Harper. The twist? He’s portraying himself. In this polished yet emotionally charged documentary, Ferrell embarks on a trip with Harper, an old friend who has recently undergone a gender transition. Together, they navigate a renewed dynamic and a country that actively oppresses transgender rights. The film offers discomfort, tears, and laughter, as well as an important education for those unfamiliar with the topic. While it has not yet been acquired, there are rumors that several major buyers are competing for it (with Netflix reportedly in the lead). This documentary has the potential to be both a commercial success and an awards contender. Stay tuned for updates.

Another documentary that had people talking, as well as cheering and crying, was Super/Man, a revealing and at times devastating look at the life and death of Christopher Reeve. Packed with A-list friends and intimate, unseen footage, it’s a blockbuster doc that was quickly, wisely snapped by Warner Bros, the studio reportedly planning a release that would involve repromoting old Superman films. With other docs hitting such as Union (focused on Amazon’s growing labor union), Girls State (a sequel to hit Boys State), Skywalkers (a daredevil romance picked up by Netflix) and the audience prize-winning Daughters (centered on a program that brings girls together with their incarcerated fathers), it felt like a strong year for the US, coming just after a rather weak one, with all five Oscar documentary noms coming from international film-makers.

The cast of It’s What’s InsideView image in fullscreen

The festival’s highest-earning film so far is the flashy suspense movie It’s What’s Inside, which was acquired by Netflix for $17 million after competing with other studios. The low-budget film, about a chaotic pre-wedding party triggered by a unique game, has no well-known actors but may kick off a new franchise for the streaming platform if all goes according to plan. Sundance is known for premiering popular new films in various genres (past examples include Get Out, Hereditary, and The Babadook) and while opinions were mixed on this one, there was widespread agreement on another film also featured in the midnight lineup. Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun made a splash at the 2021 virtual Sundance with the eerie digital horror We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and their follow-up I Saw the TV Glow has solidified their reputation as one of the most innovative and bold new voices in the industry. A somber and unsettling tale about identity, representation, and obsession told through the shared connection of two teenagers to a Buffy-esque TV show, it is being positioned as A24’s next successful crossover in the genre, but may face challenges with more mainstream audiences due to its boundary-pushing nature, surpassing even the company’s previous works like Midsommar, Talk to Me, and The Witch.

A thought-provoking film of an unconventional genre, Steven Soderbergh’s experimental ghost story Presence may present a challenge for viewers. The film, acquired by Neon at the festival, follows a common plot of a family moving into a haunted house but offers a unique perspective. Despite being written by the same writer as the director’s previous successful genre project, HBO’s thriller Kimi, it may struggle like Unsane, a 2018 film shot on an iPhone that failed to resonate with audiences despite a wide release. While Presence showcases impressive technical skills, it may not have enough horror or drama to appeal to the masses. However, with Neon only paying $5 million for the rights, modest returns may not be a major concern.

At the festival, one of the most successful and guaranteed commercial hits was a comedy about coming of age called My Old Ass. Despite having a mostly unknown cast, except for a short appearance by Aubrey Plaza, the film has the potential to appeal to a broad audience with its polished yet heartfelt story. This type of film has historically done well at Sundance and it’s no surprise that it was acquired by Amazon-MGM for a significant $15 million and will have a wide release. The recent unexpected success of Anyone But You, a weaker film but with a similar glossy studio feel, suggests that with effective marketing, My Old Ass could also find success in the commercial market.

Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg in A Real PainView image in fullscreen

Searchlight is anticipating another successful film at Sundance, with the acquisition of the buddy comedy A Real Pain for $10m. The film, written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg, stars Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin as cousins who embark on a tour of Poland to honor their late grandmother. With Culkin’s recent Golden Globe and Emmy wins for Succession, there is already buzz about a potential Oscar campaign for his supporting role. Another potential award contender is Titus Kaphar’s family drama Exhibiting Forgiveness, featuring a standout performance from Moonlight’s André Holland as a painter reconnecting with his troubled father. Saoirse Ronan, already a four-time Oscar nominee, may add a fifth nomination with her captivating performance in the recovery drama The Outrun, which has impressed critics at the festival. Both films are still seeking distribution in the US.

At the festival, Kristen Stewart had two very different projects that received very different reactions. Her first film, Love Me, was a unique romantic story set in the future and featuring two artificially intelligent machines. Despite also starring Steven Yeun, who gained recognition at the festival in 2020 for his role in Minari, Love Me was mostly dismissed as a risky venture that did not succeed and has not yet been acquired by a distributor. In contrast, her other film, Love Lies Bleeding, a bloody midnight thriller, was met with much more positive feedback. Backed by A24, its blend of 80s nostalgia and gruesome crime elements is expected to be a successful spring release in theaters.

Film-makers on the ground are feeling uncertain about the future of independent film. Many used interviews and Q&As as reminders that the path to the festival is difficult, and even after premiering, there are no guarantees. According to Schoenbrun, the director of I Saw the TV Glow, independent film in America is now focused on training people to become Marvel directors rather than creating a viable alternative to showcase and appreciate more radical visions. Sean Wang, director of audience award winner Dìdi, also expressed concern about the industry’s uncertainty.

The future of the festival is uncertain as there are rumors that it may relocate from its current location in Park City. The festival has received criticism from locals for putting strain on the small town, while visitors have expressed difficulties in traveling to attend. Sundance Institute CEO Joanna Vicente acknowledges these challenges, specifically accessibility and cost, and mentions an upcoming negotiation.

Source: theguardian.com