- The Sundance Film Festival was back in person for the first time since 2020.
- A-list stars like Anne Hathaway and Jason Momoa were present to promote their buzzy films.
- The deals market was slow to take off, with a few big sales but not as many as in recent years.
It was impossible not to feel optimistic about the state of independent film at the opening weekend of the Sundance Film Festival.
Back in person for the first time since 2020, the fest was brimming with hot titles, A-list stars, and raucous crowds springing to their feet for films from “Magazine Dreams,” a brutal drama starring Jonathan Majors as a struggling bodybuilder, to “Theater Camp,” a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary with exactly the glorious jazz-hands vibe you’d expect.
In five days I saw eight films, and while I’m not a critic, I can affirm that not one of them was a clunker. This doesn’t mean indie filmmakers aren’t facing pressing and growing challenges — including dwindling theater attendance (Regal Cinemas’ parent, Cineworld, filed for bankruptcy last year), rising production costs, and studio consolidation — but the creative ecosystem is going strong. At an event like Sundance, even amid some hand-wringing over the future, the excitement is contagious.
In its 39th year, the festival has grown exponentially, with about 100,000 film lovers, dealmakers, and strivers pouring into Park City, Utah, for the chance to discover or be discovered. If you’re not a star being squired via Escalade — Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Connelly, and Jason Momoa were just a few of the A-listers with films to promote — then you spend a lot of time shuttling from theater to panel venue to party space on the town’s free buses, where there’s constant chatter and debate about the film you just saw or the one you’re seeing tomorrow.
I had targeted only a few titles from the 100-plus features on the schedule, so I was open to suggestion and serendipity. I decided to check out opening-day feature “Sometimes I Think About Dying” after meeting one of its supporting players on a shuttle from the Salt Lake City airport. It’s a quiet romantic dramedy, starring and produced by “Star Wars'” Daisy Ridley, that isn’t as depressing as its title suggests. And, even factoring in a little proximity bias, my shuttlemate was great in it!
Another chance bus encounter with two producers, Rachael Fung and Peter McClellan, led me to my favorite film of the weekend — “Fremont,” a black-and-white dramedy centered on an Afghan woman working at a Chinese fortune cookie factory in California. It was shot in what’s known as Academy ratio (a 4 to 3 ratio, the size of a frame of 35mm film — i.e., not really suited for a theater or your TV screen) and, like the Daisy Ridley film, explores themes of social isolation.
Have I just described the Sundanciest film ever? Was Fung “a crazy producer” to support director Babak Jalali’s choice of such an arty format, as she jokingly suggested to me after the premiere? So be it. Asked about the film’s aspect ratio in an audience Q&A, Jalali said, “It was prettier that way.” I thought so too.
The bulk of the films I saw were more commercial, and four of them centered on relationships. “The Pod Generation,” a social satire about the future of human pregnancy, stars Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a not-so-far-off-seeming future when affluent couples gestate their babies in pods. Before its premiere, Sophie Barthes’ film won an award from Sundance and the Alred P. Sloan foundation for its exploration of science, but as of this writing, it hadn’t found a distributor, one of the most talked-about and starriest films — along with Hathaway’s “Eileen” — yet to make a sale.
“You Hurt My Feelings,” from Sundance recidivist Nicole Holofcener, has Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies unpacking marriage’s white lies and vulnerabilities. And “Shortcomings,” Randall Park’s sweet, culturally specific rom-com — based on a graphic novel — marked not only his feature directorial debut but also his first trip to Sundance, he told me at the film’s afterparty.
And then there was “Cat Person,” based on a 2017 New Yorker story about dating by Kristen Roupenian. Director Susanna Vogel stays true to the IP for the film’s first two acts — hundreds of texts, bad sex, bruised egos, the worst onscreen kiss ever — before taking a turn into thriller territory that met with mixed reviews. But on the bus after the screening, a large group of young women were engaged in hot debate, the same kind of discourse that erupted when Roupenian’s story went viral, about which character was at fault for their relationship’s fiery demise. One of the women was with her father, who wisely stayed out of it.
Sundance is also known for its powerful documentaries and I caught two of this year’s buzziest: “Stephen Curry: Underrated” and “Justice,” a late addition to the lineup, directed by “Bourne Identity” helmer Doug Liman, that explores the allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Neither film broke much new ground, and “Justice” disappointed some attendees (and reviewers) who were expecting new revelations, but both stirred up powerful emotions.
But let’s cut to the bottom line: the deals. Psychological thriller “Fair Play” was first out of the gate, selling to Netflix for about $20 million. Musical drama “Flora and Son” scored a similar sum from Apple. And “Theater Camp” will screen in theaters after Disney’s Searchlight Pictures scooped it up for $8 million. There have been more deals since, and there are more to come, but like other parts of the US economy, the Sundance market didn’t seem as robust as in recent years.
The party scene, however, was as lively as ever, anchored by HBO Documentary Films’ annual shindig. With HBO parent Warner Bros. Discovery slashing budgets, headcount, and projects in a bid to cut more than $3 billion in costs, it was a shock to see the bottomless raw bar and beef tenderloin slicing stations at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
Did Warners CEO David Zaslav sign off on that? Don’t ask the partygoers who were mugging for the photo booth. They’re just enjoying it while it lasts.
This article was first published on January 28 and has been updated.