I’ve been home from the Sundance Film Festival for a week and while all the trades and critics are reporting on their top takeaways, I’ll be honest, I have yet to reconcile what I experienced in Park City this year.
The festival got off with a strange start when Robert Redford left the Day One Press Conference early saying, “I think we’re at a point where I can move on to a different place, because the thing I’ve missed over the years is being able to spend time with the films and with the filmmakers and to see their work and be part of their community.” When reading this I thought to myself, if Robert Redford, the epicenter of independent film, feels disconnected from the community, what does that say about the ecosystem (monster?) we’ve created?
On one hand, this year I got to sit next to one of my best friends during the premiere of his movie at the Eccles Theater. I got to experience with him all the joys that come with your first Sundance screening after you’ve exhausted your blood, sweat, and tears and made the impossible possible. It was an incredible night. On the other hand, The Rock had a movie at the festival this year that was shot for $11 million and sold to MGM in 2017 for $17 million.
At the coveted Producers Brunch, I got to catch up with my some of my favorite producers and congratulate them on their films while simultaneously listening to Nina Jacobson’s keynote speech wondering if the woman responsible for The Hunger Games and Crazy Rich Asians could ever understand what the producers in the room had put themselves through to get this far?
This year Amazon spent a record breaking sum at Sundance dropping a whopping $46 million on this year’s acquisitions, more than double what a major studio would usually spend at the festival. And Sundance Festival favorite Knock Down the Housesold for a record $10 million to Netfilx.
However, while the streamers forked over a fortune for the festival crowdpleasers (the word most used at the festival) the headline you probably missed is that Amazon pulled their Film Festival Stars program and with it the floor of the Sundance market. And Amazon‘s Prime Video Direct, the program responsible for bringing independent films to Prime Video subscribers, recently conducted a mysterious purge affecting thousands of films and dozens – if not hundreds – of filmmakers.
So when I’m asked what my takeaway is from the festival this year, what I keep coming back to is how I couldn’t escape witnessing wealth and power alongside artists who are struggling to just stay afloat (myself included). I think about the executives who had Express Passes and could skip the line to see a movie while producers with films at the festival struggled to get tickets. I think about the endless sponsored venues on Main Street whose VIP lists (that most of us are not on) made it impossible for filmmakers to have a meal or step inside from the cold. I think about the festival staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly to pull off a seamless festival while sales agents collected exorbitant fees on acquisitions. I think about A24 having three films in the Dramatic Competition line-up and the Netflix films that premiered despite having release dates in the coming weeks – and the many films who could have used the Sundance platform to sell their film instead. Because let’s face it, sales agents and distributors devalue your film if it doesn’t play Sundance.
I’m bringing you down, I know, I’m sorry. Maybe like Redford, I too need to move on to a different place where I can enjoy the films and filmmakers more. Perhaps the real takeaway is that as filmmakers, we need to find a way to forge a different path for our films. And I’ll admit, I don’t exactly know what that is yet. But we can’t keeping telling our investors that our small coming-of-age film with unknown cast is going to be the next big sale at Sundance. Yes, it is absolutely exhilarating to premiere your film in Park City, but we have to face the reality that Sundance isn’t just for indie filmmakers trying to sell their films anymore. Yes, we have a place, but so does Netflix, Stella Artois, and The Rock.
In better news, during the festival Tessa Thompson speaking on behalf of Time’s Up, launched the “4 Percent Challenge” announcing she would make it her goal to work with a woman director sometime in the next 18 months and challenged other actors to do the same. And while I wish we didn’t have to launch a viral challenge (Tide Pods I’m looking at you) to level the playing field for women, it is a positive step forward.
And if you’re also feeling confused about this year’s Sundance, let’s take it back 20 years and ask, from Magnolia to The Matrix: was 1999 the greatest year in modern cinema?
Meanwhile, the $10M Instagram Egg finally cracked.