There were a smattering of big sales and buzzy premieres, but as the 40th edition of Sundance ends, it’s impossible to ignore that the indie film business it champions is suffering from an identity crisis. The box office for art-house movies has yet to regain its pre-COVID stride. Streaming services once inflated the prices for movies that debuted at the festival because they were desperate for content. Now they’re more conservative in their spending. In this era of economizing, the all-night bidding wars that made Sundance sizzle have become a thing of the past. That’s good for agents and filmmakers looking to get more shut-eye, but it’s not a great sign of the financial health of the industry.
Yet there was still plenty to celebrate. Movies like “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” and “Will & Harper” received emotional standing ovations, while “A Real Pain” and “It’s What’s Inside” defied the odds to score multimillion-dollar deals. As it enters its fifth decade, Sundance hasn’t lost its ability to excite us. But it needs to hustle to keep up with the changing times.
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Documentaries’ Big Comeback
It’s been six years since “RBG” and “Three Identical Strangers” launched in Sundance before taking the box office by storm. Except for music docs like “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” and “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” the theatrical market for nonfiction movies has collapsed. Plus, Netflix and Apple aren’t as willing to plunk down the hefty checks they did when they handed megadeals to “Knock Down the House” and “Boys State.” But two of the biggest films at this year’s festival — “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story,” an intimate portrait of the actor and advocate, and “Will & Harper,” with Will Ferrell learning about the trans experience from his close friend Harper Steele — were documentaries poised to be among Sundance’s largest sales.
… And still they waited. It’s taking longer and longer for the buzziest Sundance movies to find distributors. “A Real Pain,” which scored rave reviews and featured star turns by Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin, sold within 24 hours of its debut, but that’s the exception. Other well-received films such as “Thelma,” with June Squibb channeling her inner action hero, and the coming-of-age comedy “My Old Ass” have yet to find homes, while “Super/Man” and “Will & Harper” are taking a more deliberate approach to assessing offers. That’s in marked contrast to the bidding wars that saw agents and studio chiefs burning the midnight oil to land “Manchester by the Sea” or “The Birth of a Nation.” Many executives and some artists think that’s a good thing — it prevents companies from catching festival fever and overspending to get movies of dubious commercial appeal. And it gives artists more time to weigh the pros and cons of an offer. Agents, however, would prefer to go back to the old way of doing business even if it means more sleepless nights.
Oscar Bait Lacking
Sundance isn’t a festival that’s synonymous with Academy Award attention, though recent iterations have churned out Oscar favorites like best picture winner “CODA,” Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical “Minari” and Celine Song’s wistful drama “Past Lives.” This year, however, there wasn’t a clear frontrunner. “A Real Pain” and “Super/Man” were critically embraced, but do they have enough buzz to stay in the conversation until next January?
What the fest lacked in stature, it made up for in scares. Steven Soderbergh’s twisty thriller “Presence,” zombie slasher “In a Violent Nature” and other movies about things that go bump in the night were all the rage in Park City. “It’s What’s Inside,” a horror story about a pre-wedding party from hell, landed at Netflix in a massive $17 million sale. The haunted psychodrama “I Saw the TV Glow” — which arrived on the scene with distribution from A24 — became this year’s conversation starter all across Main Street. Nothing beats a good fright.
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