The Sundance Film Festival has always been about discovery. The reason so many agents, casting directors, producers, filmmakers, and executives attend the annual January festival is because they want to be there, on the ground, when the next Steven Soderbergh or Richard Linklater pops up. Or, even when they pop up again: Both veterans are bringing projects to this year’s fest.
While there was some trepidation going into this year’s programming selection that the post-pandemic production lull and two long strikes might impact the number or quality of submissions, lo and behold, the 2024 festival has broken the festival’s record with 17,435 submissions from 153 countries.
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When we checked in (via a recent Zoom chat) with three Sundance executives to get the low-down on this year’s festival, they were bullish. And they had changes to share.
Every year, the Sundance Film Festival makes them; 2024 is no exception. For starters, the programmers are launching 11 days of screenings on Day 1, January 18 at noon local time, including the documentary “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story.” (In recent years, screenings have not kicked off until the afternoon.)
“We talked a lot about, how do we give all of these films the best moment to launch, to connect?,” said Sundance Director Eugene Hernandez. “We call it first impression. So how do we how do we set up these films for success? We feel that starting earlier in the day gives our different audiences — industry press, local audiences, curators from around the world who come to the festival — gives everyone a chance to just start watching films and start talking about them. So you’ll see a robust schedule on day one, leading into the full first weekend.”
The festival, after pivoting to digital showings in recent pandemic years, is now prioritizing the in-person experience, premiering 82 features from 24 countries, 94 percent world premieres, 40 percent from first-time filmmakers, and 11 percent backed by the Sundance labs, during the first six days before putting them online for a wider viewership to the public around the country. (Online press and industry will get a one-day jump on the public.) (You can see the full lineup right here.)
As a condition of accepting a Competition invite, all 10 entries in each of the U.S. and World Dramatic and Documentary Competitions will be available to the viewing public. While the Premieres and other sections are up to the distributors and sellers, finally, sixty percent of the total Sundance titles will be available online.
“We had that first festival digitally, and then the pivot in 2022, [and] last year was our first hybrid festival,” said Sundance Institute CEO Joanna Vicente. “We see the incredible benefits of the digital festival and engaging audiences across the U.S., and giving access to the international industry. And it’s not a very affordable festival. So it’s a way of giving access and making the festival more inclusive. But we also recognize that we need to work with the industry and with the press, and we need to figure out ‘how do we evolve?’ Listening to what the people’s needs are, and for the festival, first and foremost, it’s about bringing the community together, and being in person, giving the filmmakers the opportunity to launch their films.”
“Creating that communal in-person experience for the first half of the festival,” said Hernandez, “is really important, and that’s about being in person together.”
Continuing recent trends, there are far more documentaries across the various sections than narrative features. The 20-title Premiere section, for example, which used to be all narrative films, is now split between 10 docs and 10 features. More nonfiction films than mid-budget narratives are getting made, for one thing, although over the past year, many have faced difficulty landing distribution. (Last year, some of the blame went to over-zealous sellers hoping to cash in with streamers.)
“Sundance has been a festival of American discovery,” said Hernandez. “This will be the 40th edition. But if you look at the growth in the numbers, it’s international and on the documentary side. We saw such strong work internationally. The doc program is strong. And there’s a wide range of types and styles and approaches and filmmakers who are making strong nonfiction work right now.”
Due to the volume of submissions, many 2024 docs did not make the cut, including many celebrity bio-docs. Among the notable nonfiction titles on view are “Girls State,” from “Boys State” filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine; basketball story “Sue Bird: In the Clutch”; Yance Ford’s “Power,” about policing in this country; “Luther: Never Too Much,” Dawn Porter’s portrait of Luther Vandross; and “Frida,” from editor-turned-director Carla Gutierrez (“R.B.G.”).
“Each of these films are taking us deeper into the life of somebody that you may have heard about, or you may feel like you knew, but these are taking a deeper dive,” said Director of Programming Kim Yutani, who was surprised by Will Ferrell’s documentary of his road odyssey with a friend of 30 years who is transitioning. “You expect it to be funny, because it’s Will Ferrell and some other recognizable guests who come from the comedy world. But the thing that surprised me was just how incredibly moving the story is. It’s a story of friendship, which audiences are going to be taken with. And they get to see a different side of Will Ferrell and to discover Harper [SNL contributor Steele].”
Given that only 20 percent of the films at Sundance 2024 have distribution, many filmmakers are praying for a sale. On the narrative side, Focus Features has backed “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” from Kobi Lobii, while Bleecker just scooped up the Zellner brothers movie “Sasquatch Sunset.”
One obvious hot sales title is Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “Freaky Tales,” starring Pedro Pascal and Ben Mendelsohn. Other standouts include one of the first films invited to the festival, Nora Fingscheidt’s “The Outrun,” starring Saoirse Ronan. “At its core, it’s an addiction story,” said Yutani. “But what she brings to this role is extraordinary.”
Other hot titles include Chiwetel Ejiofor-directed “Rob Peace,” starring himself and Mary J. Blige; Susanna Fogel’s “Winner,” starring Emilia Jones; and Soderbergh’s self-financed “Presence,” written by frequent collaborator David Koepp and starring Lucy Liu, which the filmmaker chose to take to Sundance, 35 years after “sex, lies, and videotape,” to find a distributor.
“This is a genre film like you’ve never seen before,” said Yutani. “He is taking risks. It’s so exciting to be able to see a filmmaker as established as Soderbergh coming back to Sundance and premiering something that will surprise people.”
On the series side, Richard Linklater returns to the festival with three “God Save Texas” doc entries produced by Lawrence Wright and Alex Gibney, as well as Spotlight entry “Hit Man,” which is slated for Netflix release in 2024. And Sundance regular Debra Granik is back with “Conboy vs. Everybody,” a six-part documentary that took eight years to complete.
As for the discoveries, the new talent that everyone is so hot to find? Word is to check out producer Darren Aronofsky’s “Little Death,” directed by Jack Begert and starring David Schwimmer, in NEXT; the Zuchero brothers’ “Love Me,” starring Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun; producers Stephanie Allain, Derek Cianfrance, Jamie Patricof, and Sean Cotton’s launch of visual artist-turned-director Titus Kaphar’s “Exhibiting Forgiveness,” starring André Holland; Sundance lab graduate Sean Wang’s “Didi”; and “Thelma,” starring 93-year-old June Squibb.
Finally: the bottom line. The festival is doing well when it comes to festival-generated revenues, but is suffering, like all nonprofit arts organizations, from a lack of once-robust support from corporate sponsors and patrons. This has forced some cutbacks.
“It’s a difficult time for nonprofits,” said Vicente. “Philanthropic donations are down like 13 percent, in general, in the arts. If you think about Sundance relying a lot on contributing revenue, that obviously has an impact. So it’s been a challenging three years. Post-pandemic, the impact is still very much weighing on all of us. And everyone is in the same boat. We made some tough choices. And we came into our new fiscal year, which starts in September, with a balanced budget, and a realistic budget for the year. We’re also thinking that we need to adjust, we need to change the model, we need to innovate with the challenges. Because our mission specifically is: What are the things that we can do to help these films find homes and find audiences?”
More slate announcements will follow in the coming weeks.
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