The Sundance Film Festival comes to an end on Sunday. And what did we learn from this year’s record-breaking sales and quiet misses? Let’s take a look.
Nate Parker is going to be a huge star
The director, producer, co-writer and star of “The Birth of a Nation” made a huge splash at Sundance this year. The rousing world premiere of his drama about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner received a lengthy standing ovation, then set a festival record with a $17.5 million sale to Fox Searchlight.
Pretty much the moment the credits rolled, talk in the theater turned to Parker’s Oscar chances in any number of categories. And although Sundance movies do have a tendency to fizzle, this artfully filmed, efficiently scripted historical drama packs a punch powerful enough to ensure #OscarsSoWhite won’t happen for a third consecutive year.
Amazon and Netflix are major players
Last year, the streaming giants came to Sundance with an eye towards making some buys, but both left empty-handed. This time, Netflix has shelled out major cash to pick up rights to an eclectic slate that includes the Indian comedy “Brahman Naman”; a documentary about bullying, “Audrie and Daisy”; “Tallulah,” a comedic drama with Ellen Page and Allison Janney; and “The Fundamentals of Caring,” starring Paul Rudd.
Amazon is making a play for awards contention with its acquisition of one of the festival’s most talked about films, “Manchester By the Sea.” The solemn drama was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me”) and stars Casey Affleck as a broken man who returns to his hometown following a death in the family. Amazon (which is owned by The Washington Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos) also picked up rights to the provocative arthouse drama “Complete Unknown,” with Michael Shannon and Rachel Weisz; the documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story”; Whit Stillman’s very funny Jane Austen adaptation “Love & Friendship”; and Todd Solondz’s “Weiner-Dog,” a much-anticipated film from the cult director of “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
There’s (some) space for television
Sundance carved out time for television premieres, including some promising shows. The stand-out was Hulu’s J.J. Abrams-produced limited series “11.22.63,” an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a time-traveler who tries to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Festival-goers also got a peek at CNN’s attempt to elbow its way into Comedy Central’s funny-yet-informative niche. “The United Shades of America” follows comedian W. Kamau Bell as he travels the country to make sense of race and culture. Bell is both good-humored and fearless as, during episode one, the black host meets up with Ku Klux Klan members in Arkansas.
That Jonas brother can really act
Nick Jonas was once best known for being the youngest member of the squeaky clean Jonas Brothers act. But he appears to have ditched his purity ring. When first we see him in the drama “Goat,” he’s snorting cocaine and engaging in some seriously R-rated debauchery. But you know what? He’s actually really good in the movie. He plays Brett, the older brother of the sweet, sensitive Brad (Ben Schnetzer), who follows in his big bro’s footsteps by joining the same fraternity. But the grotesque, heartless hazing that follows tests the pair’s relationship.
Schnetzer will inevitably be the breakout star of the drama, but Jonas proves his acting talent. He’s had some preparation, in his recurring roles on the television series “Kingdom” and “Scream Queens,” and he still has a recording career as a solo artist.
Diversity is alive and well — on the festival circuit, at least
Sundance had many films with performers of color in lead roles. Aside from “The Birth of a Nation,” there was also “Southside With You,” about Michelle and Barack Obama’s first date; the Miles David biopic “Miles Ahead,” starring Don Cheadle; the story of a black teenage boy living in Germany in “Morris From America”; and “The Fits,” which follows a young black girl who joins a dance team. Other premieres: ““Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” written and directed by Maori filmmaker Taika Watiti, and the buzzy Iranian horror movie “Under the Shadow,” just to name a few.
But the festival still plays favorites
There were also a lot of Sundance veterans returning to the festival. Would their movies have made the cut if the films were made by newcomers? We’ll never know. But Kevin Smith’s “Yoga Hosers” was nothing to write home about. Maggie Greenwald’s “Sophie and the Rising Sun” was a sweet romance, but by the book. And the selection of episodes from the Steven Soderbergh-produced Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience” wasn’t all that bingeable despite its titillating story about a law student, who starts working as a high-end call girl.
The market hasn’t cooled but it’s only selectively heating up
Last year, the buzziest movies sold for a lot of money but did nothing at the box office. So it seemed like “Dope” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” might be cautionary tales that would make buyers wary of investment. That’s not happening at all. There have been huge deals both leading up to and during this year’s festival, with massive offers coming from the deep pockets of Netflix and Amazon. (Netflix reportedly offered $20 million for “Birth of a Nation,” but Nate Parker went with a lower bid.)
On the other hand, a lot of very good films are still up for grabs. The well-crafted prestige drama “Christine” hasn’t yet been bought, even though it could be a vehicle for awards chatter, particularly for its lead. Rebecca Hall plays Christine Chubbuck, the Florida newscaster who shot herself on live television.
And the comical tearjerkers “Other People” and “The Hollars” have yet to be picked up. Both are decidedly Sundancey, following aimless men coming to terms with a mother’s cancer diagnosis.
Perhaps those two are seen as too derivative, but on the opposite end of the spectrum, “Swiss Army Man” has also failed to find a distributor. The cult classic-in-the-making features Daniel Radcliffe as a chatty, gassy corpse.
John Carney can do no wrong
The Irish writer-director sure knows how to steal hearts with his well-crafted musicals. He did it with “Begin Again” and “Once,” which also debuted at Sundance, in 2007, and he’s at it again with “Sing Street” — one of the most coveted tickets in Park City. The sweet, comical coming-of-age story follows an Irish kid who starts a band in order to impress a girl. And, as always, the soundtrack lives up to the narrative with toe-tapping songs inspired by Duran Duran, the Cure and A-ha.