Brett Kavanaugh and Steph Curry Docs, “Cat Person”

  • The Sundance Film Festival was back in person for the first time since 2020.
  • A-list stars like Anne Hathaway and Jason Momoa were there to promote their hot movies.
  • The deal market has been slow to take off, with some big sales but not as many as in recent years.

It was impossible not to be optimistic about the state of independent cinema during the opening weekend of the Sundance Film Festival.

Returning in person for the first time since 2020, the festival was brimming with hot titles, A-list stars and raucous crowds lining up for the films of “Magazine Dreams,” a brutal drama starring Jonathan Majors as struggling bodybuilder, for “Theatre Camp,” a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary with exactly the glorious jazz hands vibe you expect.

In five days, I saw eight movies, and while I’m not critical, I can say that none of them were a heap. That doesn’t mean independent filmmakers aren’t facing urgent and growing challenges – including dwindling movie theater attendance (Regal Cinemas’ parent company 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 hesitation about the future, the excitement is contagious.

In its 39th year, the festival has grown exponentially, with an estimated 100,000 moviegoers, negotiators and activists flocking to Park City, Utah for the chance to discover or be discovered. If you’re not a star squirting via Escalade — Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Connelly and Jason Momoa were just a few of the A-listers with movies to promote — then you’re spending a lot of time commuting between the theater and the panel venue to party places on the city’s free buses, where there’s constant chatter and debate about the movie you just saw or the one you’re seeing tomorrow.

I had only targeted a few titles from the program’s 100+ features, so I was open to suggestions and serendipity. I decided to check out the opening day feature “Sometimes I Think About Dying” after meeting one of its support players on a shuttle from the Salt Lake City airport. . It’s a quiet romantic comedy-drama, starring and produced by “Star Wars” Daisy Ridley, that isn’t as depressing as its title suggests. And, even taking into account a little proximity bias, my teammate was great in it!

Another chance meeting on the bus with two producers, Rachael Fung and Peter McClellan, led me to my favorite film of the weekend – “Fremont”, a black and white comedy-drama centered on an Afghan woman working in a Chinese factory. of fortune cookies in California. It was shot in what’s called the Academy ratio (a 4 to 3 ratio, the size of a 35mm film frame – i.e. not really suitable for a theater or your screen of television) and, like the film Daisy Ridley, explores social themes of isolation.

Did I just describe the most Sundanciest movie of all time? 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. When asked about the film’s aspect ratio during a Q&A with the audience, Jalali said, “It was prettier that way.” I thought so too.

Most of the movies I saw were more commercial, and four of them were about relationships. “The Pod Generation,” a social satire on the future of human pregnancy, stars Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a not-so-distant future where well-to-do couples gest their babies in pods. Ahead of its premiere, Sophie Barthes’ film won an award from Sundance and the Alred P. Sloan Foundation for its exploration of science, but at the time of this writing it hadn’t found a distributor, the one of the most discussed and most starred films. — as well as Hathaway’s “Eileen” — have yet to make a sale.

“You Hurt My Feelings,” by Sundance repeat offender Nicole Holofcener, has Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies unpacking the white lies and vulnerabilities of marriage. And “Shortcomings,” Randall Park’s sweet and culturally specific romantic comedy — based on a graphic novel — marked not only his directorial debut, but also his first trip to Sundance, he told me during from the film’s afterparty.

And then there was “Cat Person,” based on a 2017 New Yorker story about Kristen Roupenian’s dating. Director Susanna Vogel stays true to the IP for the film’s first two acts – hundreds of texts, bad sex, bruised egos, the worst kiss on screen Never – before turning into thriller territory that met with mixed reviews. But on the bus after the screening, a large group of young women engaged in a heated debate, the same kind of talk that erupted when Roupenian’s story went viral, about the character responsible for the fiery death of their relationship. One of the women was with her father, who wisely refrained.

Sundance is also known for its powerful documentaries, and I caught two of this year’s hottest: “Stephen Curry: Underrated” and “Justice,” a late addition to the lineup, directed by “Bourne Identity” director Doug Liman, which explores the allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Neither film broke new ground, and “Justice” disappointed some attendees (and critics) who expected new revelations, but both stirred powerful emotions.

But let’s get to the point: the offers. The psychological thriller “Fair Play” was released first, selling Netflix for around $20 million. The musical drama “Flora and Son” scored a similar sum from Apple. And “Theather Camp” will hit 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 U.S. economy, the Sundance market didn’t look as robust as it has in recent years.

The party scene, however, was livelier than ever, anchored by HBO Documentary Films’ annual shindig. With HBO’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, which has slashed budgets, staff and projects in an effort to cut costs by more than $3 billion, it was a shock to see the cutting stations of bottomless raw bars and beef tenderloins at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

Did Warner CEO David Zaslav approve of this? Don’t ask the revelers mugging for the photo booth. They just enjoy it while it lasts.

This article was first published on January 28 and has been updated.


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