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While sales were expected to be subdued at Sundance in 2021 given the then-shuttered theaters and a COVID-19 vaccine rollout still on the horizon, the fest’s first online edition boasted some record-breaking sales for titles like current awards season hopefuls CODA and Summer of Soul. But those deals overshadowed what turned out to be an otherwise muted market.
“A lot of stuff that got made during 2020 was contained and a little harder to justify bigger pricing for,” notes Deborah McIntosh, co-head of WME Independent. “But from last spring through the summer we were able to make bigger movies again and they are in the festival this year.”
This year’s fest — once again online-only, thanks to the omicron surge — is stacked with streamer-friendly genre fare and nonfiction titles. No longer relegated to the Midnight section, zombies, stalkers and supernatural specters have an outsized presence across the lineup. “More than any other year I have been at Sundance, we have more films in our U.S. competition that are genre-leaning,” notes director of programming Kim Yutani. Meanwhile, on the nonfiction side, docs make up half of UTA Independent Film Group’s titles.
But the continuation of the streak of record-breaking deals — a la CODA (2021), Palm Springs (2020) and The Birth of a Nation (2016) — is uncertain. Sales reps note that some more traditional commercial projects were passed up in favor of smaller fare, continuing last year’s “festival of discovery” mantra. And while they are more of a presence as compared to the 2021 lineup, the number of Sundance titles that are screening with distribution — like A24’s After Yang in the Spotlight section and Amazon’s Emergency in the U.S. dramatic competition — remains low as compared to years past. The 2020 iteration of the fest saw three Netflix films screen on opening day, alone.
“The festival focused on truly independent voices with this year’s slate — these are the films that really need the festival,” assesses ICM Partners’ Jessica Lacy.
Still, Netflix, Apple, and Amazon are expected to remain major buying presences. And insiders note that new entrants to the studio streaming universe — Universal’s Peacock and Paramount+ — have been engaging on individual titles even if they have yet to outline specific strategies for prospective streaming slates. Specialty outfits (Magnolia, Neon, et al.) have signaled they are ready to buy, with a particularly bullish IFC recently announcing a new acquisitions head in Endeavor Content and CBS Films alum Scott Shooman and plans to acquire 30 films annually.
While the eleventh-hour online pivot wasn’t exactly welcome, Hollywood is nonetheless well-practiced in the ways of virtual film markets by now. Here are titles likely to drive robust (virtual) dealmaking.
DIRECTOR Abi Damaris Corbin
STARS John Boyega, Michael K. Williams
BUZZ One of the last screen performances by the late actor Williams, this drama tells the real-life story of an Iraq War veteran (Boyega) who holds up a Wells Fargo branch after his disability checks stop arriving from Veterans Affairs.
A LOVE SONG
DIRECTOR Max Walker-Silverman
STARS Dale Dickey, Wes Studi
BUZZ Beloved character actors Dickey and Studi take center stage in this love story about former childhood sweethearts who find themselves widowers. Dan Janvey (Nomadland, Beasts of the Southern Wild) produces.
AM I OKAY?
DIRECTORS Stephanie Allynne, Tig Notaro
STARS Dakota Johnson, Sonoya Mizuno
BUZZ The directorial debut for married couple Allynne and Notaro is a coming-of-age and coming-out story, starring Mizuno and Johnson as longtime best friends whose relationship is tested when one reveals she is leaving for London and the other a long-held secret. Jermaine Fowler, Kiersey Clemons, Molly Gordon, and Sean Hayes round out the cast.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH
DIRECTOR Cooper Raiff
STARS Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson
BUZZ From the writer-director-actor behind SXSW winner Shithouse, the U.S. dramatic competition feature follows an aimless college graduate who gets a job as a party starter and befriends young mother (Johnson, who also produces) and her autistic daughter, played by newcomer Vanessa Burghardt.
SALES Endeavor, ICM, WME
DIRECTOR Riley Stearns
STAR Karen Gillan
BUZZ This grounded sci-fi feature is set in a future where clones can be commissioned after a patient receives a terminal medical diagnosis. Marvel regular Gillan stars as a woman who, after making a miraculous recovery, has to participate in a duel to the death with her clone.
SALES CAA, UTA, XYZ
EMILY THE CRIMINAL
DIRECTOR John Patton Ford
STAR Aubrey Plaza
BUZZ Comedy specialist Plaza takes a dramatic turn in this thriller about a woman who, after becoming saddled with personal debt, is pulled into the criminal underworld of Los Angeles.
SALES CAA, ICM, Verve
FIRE OF LOVE
DIRECTOR Sara Dosa
BUZZ Prolific nonfiction producer Dosa directs this U.S. Documentary Competition title about married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who died in a volcanic explosion. The couple was one of the subjects of Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary Into the Inferno.
HONK FOR JESUS, SAVE YOUR SOUL
DIRECTOR Adamma Ebo
STARS Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown
BUZZ This mockumentary satirizes megachurch culture through a post-scandal comeback attempt by a Southern Baptist pastor (Brown) and his wife (Hall).
SALES ICM, CAA Media Finance, UTA
DIRECTOR Nikyatu Jusu
STARS Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan
BUZZ From up-and-coming horror director Jusu (Suicide by Sunlight), this competition title follows an undocumented Senegalese nanny contending with a supernatural presence in her life while working for a privileged couple in New York City.
DIRECTOR Lena Dunham
STAR Kristine Froseth
BUZZ Dunham’s return to feature filmmaking follows an aimless L.A. 20-something (Froseth) navigating her relationships with her aspiring influencer sister and Hollywood-adjacent mother, and an affair with her older employer. Jon Bernthal, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Dunham round out the cast.
SALES CAA, FilmNation
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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