Sundance: How the Fest’s Quirky Indies Have Won Over the Academy

22 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Cannes Winners Selected for New Directors/New Films.

Films that are first screened in January are often forgotten by awards season later that year — unless they screen at Sundance, which for the past 25 years has served as a springboard for small but accomplished films, helping them to find distributors which, in turn, help those films find Oscar buzz toward year’s end. Funny business takes center stage amid the serious artistic mission of showcasing independent films when the Sundance Film Festival kicks off its 11-day run Thursday in Park City, Utah. “It’s a significant year for comedians,” says program director Trevor Groth. “Stand-up comedians and comedy actors are in a lot of different sections of the festival.” Jack Black, who stars in a comedy about a high school reunion in The D Train, with Jeffrey Tambor, Kathryn Hahn and James Marsden, couldn’t be happier. “I love it,” he says. “Finally, some attention and light is being shined on the comedian.The importance of Sundance’s film marketplace and what’s considered “Sundance bait” depends on whether you’re asking a seller, distributor, director, producer, talent agent or the heads of the fest itself.

If Boyhood wins the Oscar for best picture as predicted next month, it will be good news not only for the film’s director, Richard Linklater, but for Robert Redford, too.Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s silent film “The Tribe” is among the first nine selections for the annual New Directors/New Films series presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, those organizations announced Wednesday.

It’s also a testament to the fact that lots of talented comedians are dipping their toe into the world of darker, more dramatic films.” “i wrote Grandma (premiering Jan. 30) with Lily Tomlin’s voice, but I didn’t tell her I was writing it for her,” says writer-director Paul Weitz of the 75-year-old icon. “She’s so smart and scabrous and funny. If this year’s market is a bit less frenzied, one reason (apart from 2014 pickups’ modest box office) might be that some of the best bait is being taken away before the fest. “Several buyers have been more aggressively pursuing pre-buys this year, so that they can avoid having to compete for titles at festivals,” says Micah Green, co-head of CAA’s film finance & sales group, which is repping titles including Keanu Reeves starrer “Knock Knock,” “Strangerland” and “Cop Car.” Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Tom Bernard (whose “Whiplash” has earned $7 million worldwide, the biggest B.O. among last year’s pickups) agrees, saying pre-buys are a way distribs “are starting to empower themselves. In the 37 years since Redford started Sundance to nurture independent talent, the film festival has produced a slew of titles that have made the Academy Awards shortlist – including, in recent times, Precious, Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone. As opposed to some other actors and creative people who fall into stereotypical depictions, Lily’s always got an edge, her humor is always questioning.

That’s what drives the hype and the excitement.” It’s easy to see why Sundance, with its bucolic setting, history of producing iconoclastic films, and reputation as a showcase for new talent, remains an essential stop for buyers and sellers. Five of the 15 documentary features that wound up on the Oscar shortlist also debuted at Sundance — though only one, Last Days in Vietnam, which screened out of competition, made the final five.

Yet despite the popularity of VOD and emergence of new digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon hungry to distribute content in all its forms, the independent business remains notoriously difficult. In a new section called “Special Events,” Sundance will premiere HBO’s “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” by Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling (“Capturing the Friedmans”), about the real-estate heir who became a suspect in a series of unsolved murders.

Supply is limited, and demand is at an all-time high thanks to such new distributors as Bleecker Street, Broad Green Pictures and a still-unofficial-but-very-real Relativity specialty label as well as nontraditional outlets such as Amazon Studios and WWE Studios, both of which will be eager to buy at the festival. “New players in the marketplace will keep prices up for domestic,” says Lia Buman, president of acquisitions at Focus Features, which picked up Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here last year. “And the Sundance films are in line with what they’re looking for.” The Weinstein Co., which was fairly inactive last year, is expected to be on the prowl. Also realistic.” Sundance regular Mark Duplass is pitching three comedic films (and a TV series), including The Bronze, starring Melissa Rauch and Gary Cole, which screens on Thursday’s opening night. “It looks at what do we do in this country with our leftover Olympic athletes once we’re done with them,” says Duplass. “It’s like a female counterpart to Napoleon Dynamite, with a big, grounded heart.” A more intense approach also seems to typify the 118 films on the schedule, says festival director John Cooper. “I think it’s going to be a very wild ride for audience members,” with films that “go the full distance in emotion and impact.” Among the humor-related films is Kevin Pollack’s documentary Misery Loves Comedy, which is dedicated to Robin Williams and features comedians including Jimmy Fallon, Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg and Amy Schumer, who examine whether pain is essential to comedy.

In 2015, if you have a really great movie, it might sell for $50,000 to a small distributor.” Duplass embodies every phase of Sundance talent over the past decade: an indie filmmaker-actor who launched his career (2005’s “The Puffy Chair”) and biggest critical hits (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) at the fest before moving to TV for FX’s comedy “The League” and HBO series “Togetherness” that he and his brother Jay are launching. Yet this year’s edition, which opens on Thursday, is fancied as one of the strongest yet seen, with new titles from much-acclaimed directors such as Noah Baumbach – reuniting with Greenberg and Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig for Mistress America – and Napoleon Dynamite’s Jared and Jerusha Hess back in town with faith comedy Don Verdean.

Directed by Kornel Mundruczo of Hungary, “White God” is about a dog’s perilous journey to find his teenage owner after being abandoned in the street. But when the indie boom of the late 1980s and early ’90s hit, art house distributors such as Miramax, Sony Classics and Focus Features began scooping up more Sundance indies, exposing them to larger audiences and, in a growing number of cases, convincing Academy members to check them out (screeners certainly helped).

Redford himself has a title playing – an adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a memoir about hiking the Appalachian Trail with his best friend (played by Nick Nolte). Nor is the problem of overpaying endemic only to Sundance. “Begin Again” and “Top Five” were two of the costliest acquisitions in recent years, netting $7 million and $12.5 million, respectively, out of the Toronto Film Festival. Also to be screened is “Goodnight Mommy,” Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s thriller about twin boys who believe their mother has been replaced by an imposter following her facial reconstruction surgery.

The first to click with Oscar voters was Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 audience award winner sex, lies and videotape, which went on to an original screenplay nom. Jemaine Clement, one-half of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords duo, stars in People, Places, Things, as a graphic novelist and father of two young girls who is struggling with a painful divorce.

Grandma stars fellow veteran Lily Tomlin as a grieving lesbian helping her granddaughter, while Blythe Danner is another older singleton coping with troublesome offspring – and later-life dating – in I’ll See You In My Dreams. Last year’s breakout, Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” went from a Sundance opening-night premiere to five Oscar nominations including best picture, announced last week.

Meanwhile, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are a long-married couple dealing with decades-buried secrets in 45 Years, the new film from Andrew Haigh, whose gay romance Weekend met with much acclaim. Compounding the problem, many indie productions sell tax credits, along with foreign and ancillary rights, to help finance their shoots, limiting other potential revenue streams for would-be buyers. The remaining entries are Charles Poekel’s “Christmas, Again,” about a lonely Christmas-tree vendor in Brooklyn; “The Great Man,” from the French director Sarah Leonor; “Entertainment,” directed by Rick Alverson; and “Theeb,” directed by Naji Abu Nowar. In both films, Clement says, “the people are very real, with very relatable experiences, things that have happened to you or your friends.” “The Stanford Prison Experimentand Experimenter both are based on real-life scientists who conducted experiments with humans about how far people are willing to go when given power,” says Groth. “There’s no single story about what happened, there are many perspectives,” says Stanford star Billy Crudup, who plays Philip Zimbardo, the psychology professor who devised the study. “It has the feeling of a thriller: 20 people locked in a hall with a moral dilemma, and what happens to all those individuals as pressure increases.” The festival’s slate of documentaries feature topical subjects, including campus rape in The Hunting Ground, and a young black man shot for playing his music too loudly in 3 and 1/2 Minutes. At last year’s Sundance, Richard Linklater introduced “Boyhood” to the world. “You feel when you see the film, you’re the first person to watch it outside the people working on it,” said Trevor Groth, the festival’s programming director. “You get swept up in the power of it, too.” Park City also becomes party city during the festival, with A-list celebrities descending on the ski resort.

Self-proclaimed “Sundance baby” Rodrigo Garcia, who made his 2000 debut here with “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” and returns this year with the Jesus Christ pic “Last Days in the Desert,” notes that he met his debut’s producer, Jon Avnet, in the Directors Lab, and that similar TV connections are being made in the new Episodic Story Lab. The most recent game-changer from the digital realm came Jan. 19 when longtime producer Ted Hope was tapped to drive Amazon Original Movies, proving that the streaming service wasn’t just poaching independent filmmakers to make TV series. Events hosted by this year’s sponsors—Grey Goose vodka, Acura and Chase Sapphire Preferred—have on their guest lists Nicole Kidman (in the film “Strangerland”), Zoë Kravitz (“Dope”), Chris Pine (“Z for Zachariah”), Jack Black (“The D Train”) and Sam Rockwell (“Don Verdean”). The fest will feature nine virtual-reality film experiences, including one called Birdly, which explores flight. “You’ll be strapped into a machine that simulates flying, has wings and flies over San Francisco,” says Cooper. “Your body will be suspended at the same time. Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun has ridden the growing wave of interest in docs with Sundance sales like “Searching for Sugar Man” and new titles like the daredevil doc “Being Evel,” and seen changes in deals along the way. “In the past few years, a lot have included bumps on VOD where there used to be only box office bumps,” he says. “Certain players like Netflix potentially buy all (online) rights worldwide, a model that didn’t exist a couple years ago.” It’s one reason he launched the Submarine Deluxe theatrical distrib label, reflecting another change in Sundance: the crowded, complex landscape has led some to self-release films.

Netflix has already acquired feature documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated “Virunga,” and signed a deal to host films from Adam Sandler, while Vimeo and Hulu are also sending acquisition teams. Like Braun, Tim League comes to Sundance wearing two hats: as head of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain screening potential releases, and as head of his Drafthouse Films label looking for acquisitions. Other hot-potato documentaries include Chuck Norris vs Communism, about the underground popularity of the star in 80s Romania, and The Wolfpack, about six teenage brothers locked in their New York apartment whose only link with the outside world was movies. British actress Bel Powley is poised to break out with her performance as Minnie, a young artist who begins an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). A young Irish girl is torn between two men and two countries, in a film based on the novel by Colm Toibin and adapted by Nick Hornby, and starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent. • Digging for Fire.

There are also studies of white supremacists trying to take over a small town (Welcome to Leith), amateur pornographers (Hot Girls Wanted), those who perpetrate anti-black gun violence (3½ Minutes), government counterterrorists ((T)ERROR), Kurt Cobain (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck), and a man who finds a mummified foot in a grill he buys at a yard sale (Finders Keepers). Most of the breakouts from Sundance have had name actors and commercial elements.” He picked up the 2014 comedies “The Skeleton Twins” (with Lionsgate & Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, last year’s top sale at $3.5 million) and “Dear White People” (with Lionsgate). James Franco stars as a gay pastor who attempts to turn heterosexual in I Am Michael, and, in the real-life-based True Story, as an accused killer who steals the identity of a New York Times journalist (played by Jonah Hill). Buzz: Buyers are calling the tearjerker from Emmy-nominated Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story) a cross between The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars.

The documentary by Alex Gibney (The Armstrong Lie), is based on Lawrence Wright’s best seller and delves beneath the surface of Scientology. • Mistress America. Comedians go dramatic in Nasty Baby (Kristen Wiig helps a gay couple conceive) and I Smile Back (Sarah Silverman is a horny yet depressed mum in the suburbs).

It can be challenging to find things that are artistically driven, well-done films the public will want to see.” For many studios, finding the next bright talent is as important as the pictures themselves. Meanwhile the footprint of Boyhood’s coming-of-age narrative can be seen in Ten Thousand Saints, about a boy who goes to live with his estranged father (Ethan Hawke) in New York, while Saoirse Ronan returns to her parents after 17 formative years with an abductor in Stockholm, Pennsylvania. In a business built on relationships, it’s good to have ties to the next Quentin Tarantino, David O. “To go to a festival and find a filmmaker who is unique and stands out is an incredible thing,” says Robbie Brenner, president of production at Relativity Studios, “because that’s why people go to the movies — to have a unique experience.”

So as it moves into its own middle age, the festival looks in a strong position to defend its reputation as the thrusting young champion of innovative drama in the face of the blockbuster sequels which dominate the multiplex. An awkward, funny and potentially sinister tale follows a pair of personal trainers (Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce) and their wealthy client. • True Story. Premiering on opening night, “The Bronze” explores the life of an Olympic medalist gymnast who lives in the past—and in her father’s basement.

Her script about sex addicts retools the traditional romantic comedy, but much will depend on the chemistry between stars Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis. Bobcat Goldthwait is behind the camera with a very personal and harrowing story, [Call Me Lucky], about a friend of his who was a comedian who was very influential. Set in the 1600s, this Robert Eggers drama recreates a New England setting that precedes the Salem Witch Trials—where superstition reigns and fear threatens to break the bonds of trust and family. Directed by Crystal Moselle, this documentary explores the lives of six brothers who have spent most of their lives inside an apartment in a Manhattan housing project.

Buzz: Nicole Kidman stars in this World Competition entry as a mother whose two teenage kids go missing just before a massive dust storm hits their Australian Outback town. The team behind “The Invisible War,” which explored sexual assault in the U.S. military, presents this documentary about sexual assault and rape crimes on U.S. college campuses. The film, directed by Kirby Dick, includes first-person testimonies as rape survivors navigate institutional coverup and denial in their fight for justice.

That is the new trend in documentaries that I think is really amazing — going from the informational to the cinematic in their approach to the subject. [Documentary filmmakers] really think about how the audience responds, not just to the information but to how it’s presented. In the old days, you put films that already had distribution in the Premieres section, but so many of the Premieres are now also looking for sales, so we had to push the rollout into Tuesday. And I feel that in Salt Lake City, you can now go there any time of the year and audiences are so film literate and accepting of the broadest range of subjects. Partly from technology, but partly because the filmmakers themselves as they sort of form this movement or community are setting a bar themselves that gets higher and higher each year.

We start watching films in June, and we accept films as early as June and July now, since [producers and filmmakers] have started to learn the value of a Sundance premiere and what it can do for a film.

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