Sundance in the Post-Weinstein Age: "You Won't See Those Massive Parties"
Harvey's gone — and with him, the formerly freewheeling party scene — as insiders hope a more sober and serious festival won't throw cold water on last year's hot sales market.
The specter of Harvey Weinstein — onetime Sundance king and now pariah — looms large as dealmakers descend on Park City for this year's festival and market.
The indie film world continues to soul search in the wake of revelations that its most visible figure allegedly raped and sexually harassed women, including actresses Rose McGowan and Louisette Geiss, at the festival itself. Weinstein's football-viewing party on the fest's first Sunday was always a must for sellers and talent; he presided over it like the Mayor of Park City — which, at least for 10 days in January, he essentially was (witness the thinly veiled depiction of him on Entourage's Sundance episode).
This year, gone the way of the disgraced mogul will be the bacchanalian behavior of fests past, like 2013's, when CAA party guests were shocked to see female burlesque dancers performing simulated sex acts. "I don't think you'll see those massive parties that we all remember from 10, 15 years ago," says Verve's Amy Beecroft. "Listen, it is a really serious time in our business. We have identified the problem, and we are taking meaningful steps to change. People are much more aware, which, let's face it, obviously needed to happen."
Verve won't be hosting a party as it has done in past years. Ditto for CAA, which hasn't had a big splashy party since its wild 2013 event. UTA again will hold a daytime brunch instead of a late-night party. WME is keeping the doors open on its Main Street lounge for three nights — but is winnowing the guest list and will for the second year host the Horizon Award (with Cassian Elwes) for up-and-coming female filmmakers. ICM will throw its first Sundance bash in years, also toasting female filmmakers. The fest itself updated its code of conduct Jan. 11, stating a commitment to "allowing attendees to experience [Sundance] free of harassment, discrimination, sexism and threatening or disrespectful behavior," and local organizers are planning a Respect Rally on Jan. 20 as a follow-up to last year's women-powered March on Main.
While Sundance lore is rife with tales of all-night hotel dealmaking and boozy shindigs, some industryites welcome the new restraint. "I hate that [drinking] part of it. I'm too old for all of that," says producer Stephanie Allain, heading to Park City this year with the TV series Leimert Park. "Young girls are aware of what's happening. Young guys are aware of what's happening. They're having conversations about what is appropriate and what isn't appropriate. So that's going to be in the back of every greeting, every meeting and every gathering."
The market itself also may feel the absence of Weinstein. Although The Weinstein Co. hadn't made a significant Sundance acquisition in years, it nonetheless drove up the prices for films it pursued (think 2016's The Birth of a Nation and 2015's Brooklyn, which both sold to Fox Searchlight — for $17.5 million and $9 million, respectively).
But Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard dismisses the notion of a significant post-Harvey effect at a fest where progressive indie values rule. "The dealmaking will be the same. Harvey Weinstein was never a factor in Sundance," he insists. "And Sundance was bigger than his behavior. He stood out like a sore thumb. Sundance does not accept those kinds of people."
Whether acquisition price tags will remain high — as with last year's The Big Sick ($12 million, Amazon), Patti Cake$ ($9.5 million, Searchlight) and Mudbound ($12.5 million, Netflix) — without TWC in the mix remains to be seen. Only three films from last year's crop earned $4 million or more at the box office: Big Sick ($43 million), Beatriz at Dinner ($7 million) and The Hero ($4 million). Another question is whether Searchlight, typically a big spender, will tighten its purse strings in anticipation of the pending Disney-Fox megadeal. Endeavor Content's Christine D'Souza Gelb isn't expecting any kind of market correction. "It will be a seller's market because we haven't really lost any buyers," she notes. "It will be interesting to see how aggressive streamers will be on the acquisitions front after having made such a big shift into production recently." Sellers are particularly excited about Neon, the 1-year-old distributor that picked up Beach Rats, among other titles, at 2017's fest and made good on its Toronto acquisition I, Tonya (bought with 30West), which landed a Golden Globe nom for star Margot Robbie and a win for Allison Janney.
Despite revelations of sexual misdeeds that have jeopardized three major acquisitions the past two years — Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation (before #MeToo and Time's Up) and Louis C.K.'s I Love You, Daddy and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me sequel (both after) — there's no talk of morality clauses being inserted into contracts. "I don't think they'd be enforceable," says a top buyer. "It's just going to be 'buyer beware.'"
Though the market noise won't be quite as loud as it was in 2017, there is plenty of buzz surrounding several films making their Park City debuts, including many with ties to Hulu's Emmy-dominating drama The Handmaid's Tale: See helmer Reed Morano's postapocalyptic love story, I Think We're Alone Now, and five films featuring Ann Dowd. Festbound insiders have identified 17 standout titles that should make solid sales. And if the post-acquisition toasting takes place at a demure dinner rather than a late-night bash, say fest veterans, it's all to the good.
Additional reporting by Chris Gardner.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.