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Sundance 2014: 8 Thoughts, Predictions and Trends to Look for at This Year's Fest

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz' (Cinetic/Roco)
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Late computer genius Aaron Swartz, subject of a new documentary.

Breakout stars, doc trends, the emergence of female directors: THR anticipates what to expect from indie film's biggest week.

Sundance starts tonight, so here's a collection of things The Hollywood Reporter thinks people will be talking about -- and what you should be looking for -- in Park City this week.

1. Will Netflix bring their wallets to Sundance?

Their purchase of The Square (dollar amount not reported, but rumors are it was large) was likely just the start of them acquiring first-run material. Netflix has incredibly rich data on their customers and knows more about our viewing habits than possibly any other media company around. Based on House of Cards, Mitt and The Square it would seem that that their data points to their subscribers having a desire for content with a political bent to it. Sundance certainly has some of that.

2. The 2015 Oscar shortlist for best documentary will be …

… more than half composed of films playing at Sundance this week. Sundance's influence in shaping the following year's slate of indie narrative films varies from year to year, but their influence on the upcoming slate of documentaries is well-established and, somehow, increasing.

3. Emerging doc trends

After seeing 12 O'Clock Boys (hitting theaters & VOD Jan. 31) and catching a glimpse of Rich Hill (premiering Sunday night at Sundance's Temple Theatre), it's worth asking: Are we on the verge of ushering in a new wave of verite-shot, cinematic-styled documentaries and moving ever so slightly away from the talking head, archival footage model that's dominated the form?

One nonfiction trend that has definitely taken hold is the character-driven documentary -- that is to say, documentaries that have dynamic real-life stars. What's interesting about this year's nonfiction slate of docs is that two of the best candidates to be documentary film's newest leading men are deceased:

Aaron Schwartz (The Internet's Own Boy) wasn't the typical hacker/boy genius looking to simply screw the man and institutions of power. He was a radical, but he was an incredibly positive activist who believed strongly he could change things for the better, which makes the circumstances surrounding his death that much more infuriating and tragic. His story has already touched millions and was the impetuous for the drafting of a new law, but the doc will likely supply a platform that catapults his story further into the public's awareness.

Some major players in the indie world (James Schamus, Lydia Dean Pilcher, and Steve McQueen) have been trying for years to bring the story of Nigerian musician and postcolonial activist Fela Kuti to the big screen, but so far it's a project that's proved too expensive to get off the ground. Documentarian Alex Gibney will likely help get the ball rolling again with Finding Fela. Using footage from the amazing Jay Z- and Will Smith-produced Broadway musical Fela! combined with interviews and performances by the actual Kuti, it seems entirely possible that 2014 will be the year the Afrobeat king's career is resurrected.

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4. Will 2015 be the year of the female director at Sundance?

People are genuinely pissed, and for good reason, about the state of women directors in Hollywood. It's a discussion that's recently gotten very heated online and will likely carry over into Park City. Sundance takes pride in helping bring diverse voices to the forefront, and they have to be conscious that many are disappointed that their 2014 lineup of female narrative directors is light in comparison to 2013's. Here's betting they take an active role in addressing this problem for their 2015 festival. One important thing to remember: Sundance doesn't simply play a major role in shaping the indie landscape by choosing which films get into their festival; it's a process that begins with their labs and shepherding filmmakers through the process of getting their films made.

5. Hollywood will know what to do with that film.

Although Hollywood is putting their weight behind fewer and fewer releases every year, their marketing teams know what to do with a certain type of indie: a serious topic handled with humor and warmth. Here's betting that Mark Ruffalo and comedy writer Maya Forbes, along with producer J.J. Abrams (his deciding to get involved in a dramatic indie has likely already raised a few eyebrows) have found that balance in Infinitely Polar Bear, based on Forbes' real-life story of growing up with a bipolar father.

6. Awards season-worthy performance?

It's hard not to love a John Hawkes character the moment he walks onscreen. His characters are often earnest and smart, and the actor brings a great sense of comedic timing to his films. There have also been performances of his where he's revealed an intensity and power bubbling underneath that lovable exterior (Winter's Bone comes to mind). Playing jazz pianist Joe Albany in Lowdown offers a virtual checklist of what critics look for in a performance to laud: He's playing a real-life person, he transforms himself into a virtuoso musician, he has an addiction problem and he gets to wear cool '70s clothes.

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7. Who will be this year's Ryan Coogler or Benh Zeitlin?

Or what film will come out of virtually nowhere and take the festival by storm? Without seeing the films it's impossible know which of them are good, let alone have the potential to be universally loved, so it's an impossible prediction to make. A few misconceptions, though, that are worth addressing: Not every Sundance festival produces a breakout film that is universally loved and that builds momentum that carries it to awards season. More importantly, a breakout doesn't necessarily have to come from a young director in his or her 20s like Coogler or Zeitlin.

This year's dramatic competition slate boasts a handful of directors who have been working at their craft and finding their voices for well over a decade by continually making very small, DIY-style films with friends, and who now for the first time are working on a larger canvas.

Take Hellion's Kat Candler for example. She's spent the last 15 years making three features and over a dozen shorts, three of which have played at Sundance. She's now graduated to an Aaron Paul film about a hell-raising kid (Sundance crowds seem to love kids!) faced with some very real-world problems. There's genuine support and excitement for this film and Candler. The San Francisco Film Society gave Hellion their biggest grant, much like they did Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale Station and Short Term 12, while SFFS's Michele Turnure-Salleo speaks about Hellion with the same excitement and pride she does the other Sundance breakouts they've supported.

Or take Candler's Austin filmmaking friends, the idiosyncratic Zellner brothers, who are making their eighth trip to Sundance with Kumiko, Treasure Hunter. Their previous film, Kid-Thing, was a microbudget movie that has been well-received, but was never going to be the type of film that broke out into the mainstream. Their new film -- about a Japanese woman who travels to Minnesota to find the money buried at the end of the movie Fargo -- has the potential to be the sort of unique and magical film that can find a wider audience.

8. Did Richard Linklater just suck all the oxygen out of the room?

Joe Swanberg -- whose Anna Kendrick-Lena Dunham starrer Happy Christmas was possibly the most anticipated Sundance premiere -- tweeted: "Boyhood will premiere at Sundance on Sunday night, making everything that has shown up to that point seem trite and inconsequential."

Swanberg is of course to some degree joking, but the sentiment of his tweet was felt across the indie landscape after Sundance announced the latest addition to this year's festival. Linklater's Boyhood, formerly known as The 12-Year Project, is one of the more intriguing films to come along in some time. It was shot over 12 years and tracks the raising of a boy from age 6 to 18. Ethan Hawke, who plays the boy's father, had indicated this summer that the film would come out in approximately two years, so yesterday's announcement was a surprise. One has to imagine if the film is even halfway decent it'll be biggest story to come out the year's festival.