January 2020 Digest & Thoughts on Sundance

By Rebecca Green

At the 2019 Sundance Day One Press Conference, Robert Redford left the 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 feels disconnected from the community, what does that say about the ecosystem we’ve created?

This year, Sundance decided to forgo the traditional Day One Press Conference all-together and instead put out a digital press kit. In this press kit, Sundance’s Executive Director Keri Putnam said about streaming platforms, 

“So when choices about what to watch are made for people by forces that aren’t always visible and can’t be controlled, not only do we miss out on challenging ideas and great art — it’s dangerous. This is a moment that demands our participation — as audiences, as artists and as citizens. This is a critical time for each of us to question why things are the way they are. To ask whose voices are being marginalized and why. To notice whose perspectives we aren’t seeing and why not. And to recognize that media has worth far beyond its market value or what it makes at the box office.” 

Wait, wait wait a minute… Did she just say curation by algorithm is “dangerous” when the festival programmed 10 Netflix titles? So let me get this straight, as an artist, I need to question why certain voices are being marginalized, while Sundance gave a coveted slot to the Netflix Taylor Swift documentary MISS AMERICANA. Taylor Swift, who undoubtedly has one of the loudest megaphones in the world, and Netflix, a behemoth company who announced they will invest $17 billion in content this year, got a festival slot rather than someone from one of those marginalized communities in which Keri Putnam speaks? Why is the festival asking me to look inward when they aren’t doing that themselves? 

Listen, I downloaded MISS AMERICANA to watch on my flight home. I have nothing against Taylor Swift or Netflix and wanted to see the film. And one could argue that some of the Netflix films at the festival were about marginalized communities, take CRIP CAMP for example, about the disabilities movement/revolution. However, when distributors over-value the Sundance brand recognition and under-value titles at festivals such as SXSW and Tribeca, each and every Sundance slot should go towards films that need distribution or at the very least, be a true discovery that needs a platform. We didn’t need Swifties descending on Park City to know that MISS AMERICANA was not one of those films. 

I have spoken to festival programmers at various festivals asking them why they program films with distribution when they know that distribution is what filmmakers are struggling with the most. The consensus is that while a film may have distribution, it still needs a platform to help launch it into the world. Take for example, Eliza Hitman’s new film that premiered at Sundance this year, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS. The film is about a pair of teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania who travel to New York City to seek out medical help after an unintended pregnancy. It addresses a hot topic in a serious way and has no name actors in the film. While it premiered at Sundance with Focus Features already on board to distribute, one could argue that this is the type of film where the support of Sundance has an impact on whether or not people will see the film. 

While I dream of a Sundance where no film premiering has distribution, I can get behind this logic. But Netflix is a powerhouse studio with global reach, do they really need Sundance to launch their films? Does Taylor Swift? And once the Taylor Swift fanfare died down, Disney-owned Hulu premiered its Original Documentary, HILARY, sucking the air out of the festival yet again. 

Maybe I’m being too harsh, too dramatic. There have always been movie stars at Sundance, there are always flashy titles in the mix, and I know there were many films no one had ever heard of by new voices without distribution. However, something about this year made me feel that there isn’t a lot of room left for indie filmmakers on the fringe. That if you’re not already in the fold with one of the streamers or big agencies or you don’t have name talent attached to your film, it’s highly unlikely the festival is going to shine a spotlight on you. 

So while I agree with Keri Putnam that curation by algorithm is dangerous, I would turn to her and ask, ‘if that is true, then has Sundance lost its curation credibility?’ 

* As a side note, if you are reading and tracking IndieWire’s Sundance 2020 Deals: The Complete List of Festival Purchases So Far, know that many of the titles were financed by the distributor, which does not make it a “Sundance acquisition.” Do your homework to find out how a film was put together before throwing out comps from this list to potential investors.  


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