With fewer projects on offer, online dealmaking and more first-time filmmakers than ever, buyers and sellers brace for a virtual Sundance market filled with unknowns, but a pandemic-fueled need for content bodes well for business.
With a halved program that will be screened virtually, the 2021 Sundance market is understandably expected to be a more muted affair than last year, which included record-breaking deals in both narrative and nonfiction sales.
This year is described by buyers and sellers as a "festival of discovery," with half the program coming from first-time feature directors. Heading into Sundance last year, many of the biggest domestic titles already were spoken for, including Never Rarely Sometimes Always and A24's Minari and Zola. This year, only one of the dramatic competition titles (Together Together) has been presold out of all the films in the dramatic competition section.
And while there are still splashy narrative titles available— like festival opener Passing starring Ruth Nega and Tess Thompson— this years' selections do not have the A-list ensembles that have become commonplace at Sundance. Doc titles will continue to be of major interest, with selections from Edgar Wright (The Sparks Brothers) and Questlove (Summer of Soul) on offer. "The nonfiction world has continued to be a super active business," says UTA Independent Film Group agent Nick Shumaker.
And while the traditional studios are expected to sit out this year's market — with theatrical exhibition still on hold amid a slow and disorganized vaccine rollout — streamers are looking to feed the still-quarantined masses. Sales, however, may not be as easy to score as one might think: The pandemic marketplace pits Sundance titles against studio films with releases still being incrementally pushed back. The belief early on in the COVID-19 crisis that services would dip into pools of available independent features has not borne out in the way some sellers had hoped. Fortunately, as CAA Media Finance's Nick Ogiony notes, the majority of acquisition titles are offered in all territories, which often is a prerequisite for streamers. "Having these movies available worldwide has all buyers interested because there is such a vibrant market for movies that can be exploited on a global basis."
Another factor working in Sundance's favor is the fact that by now the virtual film market format is already well-honed after the robust sales activity at Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival. Here are eight titles that could entice buyers (via Zoom).
DIRECTOR Sian Heder
STARS Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Marlee Matlin
BUZZ In her Sundance return, Heder's drama follows the only hearing person in a deaf family and her choice between pursuing her passion for music or staying put to help her parents' fishing business. Insiders say the title (which screens on day one of the festival) has broad commercial appeal.
DIRECTOR Sean Ellis
STARS Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie
BUZZ A werewolf story with an indie sensibility, Silver is the festival's genre standout. Described as a traditional Gothic horror, the title is set in the 1800s in a remote country village where a man is sent to investigate wild animal attacks.
DIRECTOR Pascual Sisto
STARS Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, and Taissa Farmiga
BUZZ The psychological thriller, which was an official Cannes selection, comes from one of the writers behind Birdman (Nicolas Giácobone), and centers on a kid who holds his family captive in a hole he found in the ground.
DIRECTOR Fran Kranz
STARS Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney
BUZZ This confined drama offers an acting showcase for the four leads, who play two sets of parents that are coming together years after a tragic school shooting, in which one of their children was the victim and the other was the shooter.
DIRECTORS Betsy West, Julie Cohen
BUZZ The directing team behind the Oscar-nominated RBG is back with a portrait about lesser-known legal hero Murray, a nonbinary Black lawyer who argued for civil rights and women's rights, whose work inspired the likes of Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall. Participant, which was behind RBG and current awards contender John Lewis: Good Trouble, is behind the doc.
DIRECTOR Jerrod Carmichael
STARS Carmichael, Christopher Abbott
BUZZ The critically acclaimed comedian's first major onscreen role since The Carmichael Show also is his feature directorial debut. The frenetic black comedy takes places on the day two best friends plan to end their lives. Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove and Henry Winkler round out the cast.
DIRECTOR Baz Poonpiriya
STARS Tor Thanapob, Ice Natara
BUZZ Wong Kar-wai produced this world dramatic competition selection, a Thai road-trip movie that revolves around estranged friends who come together to fulfill a bucket list after one is diagnosed with cancer. The director already has lined up a high-profile project as his next outing, co-directing a still-untitled Thai cave-rescue movie with Crazy Rich Asians helmer Jon M. Chu.
DIRECTOR Pacho Velez
BUZZ There already is a lot of interest from buyers for this documentary that follows a diverse group of New Yorkers (including the filmmaker himself) as they navigate various dating apps.
DIRECTOR Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
BUZZ Nonfiction titles are becoming increasingly bigger tickets, as evidenced by last year's $12 million price tag for Boys State. This music documentary from the Roots co-founder about 1969's Harlem Cultural Festival (aka Black Woodstock) that saw performances from Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder, is seen as the likely favorite to continue to this trend. The day-one premiere was made using 40 hours of never-seen-before footage.
DIRECTOR Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.
STARS Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer
BUZZ An alum of the Sundance Labs and recipient of the Native Producer Fellowship, Corbine makes his feature debut with this crime thriller about two men forced to confront their cover-up of the murder of a classmate. Jesse Eisenberg and Kate Bosworth also star.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.