From Disney to Will Smith, Sundance Mixes in the Mainstream: "It's a Changing World"

Ben Affleck - Will Smith - Getty - Split - H 2020
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Studio execs, tentpole actors (like Angelina Jolie) and corporate brands will blanket Park City, but veterans say expanding the festival beyond its indie roots is necessary in the streaming age.

Who says Sundance caters only to the undiscovered and obscure?

This year's festival will feature a bevy of names and companies not typically associated with indie cinema, from Disney+ to Will Smith, Angelina Jolie and Ben Affleck. In fact, the art house mecca launched 42 years ago as a tonic to the corporatization of cinema will feel more mainstream than in past years thanks to the growing importance of the Kids sidebar as well as a few tentpole stars making an unlikely detour into art house fare.

Tom McCarthy, director of Disney+'s Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, which debuts Jan. 25 at Sundance, says there's no better place to introduce a film that "breaks some Disney rules" than in Park City. "Look, it's a changing world," says the Spotlight helmer who is directing his first kids movie. "Sundance is constantly expanding nationally and internationally. John Cooper and his team are always thinking outside the box. And working with Sean Bailey at Disney, he had this intention of, 'We want to challenge the brand with Disney+. We want to make author-driven movies.' "

Affleck, who hasn't starred in an indie film since Terrence Malick's 2012 Venice bow To the Wonder, also would seem out of place in a Sundance lineup. But he stars alongside Anne Hathaway in Dee Rees' inside-the-Beltway drama The Last Thing He Wanted, screening in the Premieres section. Likewise, Smith, who is synonymous with big-budget tentpoles — be it as a star or a producer — will represent in this year's U.S. Dramatic Competition lineup with Charm City Kings, a gritty drama about a Baltimore dirt bike gang. Smith's Overbrook Entertainment produced the Meek Mill starrer, marking a notable contrast to the company's Sony action film Bad Boys for Life, which opened Jan. 17.

At the same time, purists bemoan the fact that Sundance has become overrun by Fortune 500 signage, with everyone from Acura to AT&T to Chase commandeering prime real estate in Park City. Local businesses can earn six figures to rent out their spaces for the run of the festival.

As Cooper makes his final outing as Sundance director this year, he will leave behind a festival that has expanded its scope. Since its debut at Sundance 2014, the Kids section has become appealing to distributors looking for child-friendly fare that will be embraced by their cineaste parents, like 2016's The Eagle Huntress (Sony Pictures Classics released the documentary, and Fox is developing an animated narrative remake). This year's lineup will feature a Jolie movie with Come Away.

Still, Sundance won't likely become a four-quadrant showcase anytime soon. Says Cinetic's John Sloss: "Kids just don't like art house films as much as they should." 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.