While awards season keeps the previous year’s prestige films lingering in January like a hangover, Sundance arrives like a magic tonic every year to provide an occasion for optimism amidst a sea of hatchet jobs against worthy films. The industry descends (or, really, ascends) to the Utah mountains for an 11-day celebration of cinema to scout an expertly curated program of promising artistry.
In many ways, Sundance serves as a sort of convocation for an elite institution. Simply by being there, all involved are conferred some kind of merit and honor. That festival laurel, irrespective of the film’s actual quality, will forever be emblazoned on its outward face to the world since it passed muster with John Cooper’s selection committee. Of course, some will inevitably be ill-equipped to handle scrutiny and get doomed to dwell in straight-to-VOD or distribution limbo.
But pick a random film out of the bunch, and odds are, it will receive some measure of critical acclaim and some type of theatrical release. Perhaps some will catch fire with the average moviegoer and prove a hit across the country. Others might strike a nerve within the industry and still be in the conversation by the time the next Sundance rolls around – only this time, for an ineffably etched spot in the annals of film history.
After the 2015 edition, however, the official selections of 2016 Sundance Film Festival might not face these expectations. Last year’s festival saw a number of buyers eager to spend big for festival titles, only to see the vast majority sputter out before the general public. The D Train. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Dope. The Overnight. The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Mistress America. Each debuted to great acclaim and exuberant shouts that a breakout hit was in the making, and each resulted in a loss for their buyer. Curiously enough, the biggest commercial and title from 2015’s fest, Brooklyn, does not even include the Sundance laurels in its official marketing. (Distributor Fox Searchlight touts Toronto, New York, and even London on occasion.)
So what does it mean for Sundance, one of the few events of its kind with a household name, when its star pupil chooses not to align itself with the festival’s three decade-old legacy? It feels unnecessarily alarmist to call this moment a crisis, yet 2016 does appear poised to be a pivotal year for Sundance’s identity. While the selection is poised to progress the festival forward in many key areas, it must also contend with a track record of consistent crossover success built over the last 30 years.
The “Sundance film,” paradoxically, stands for independence but has also come to conjure a certain kind of cinema. It usually blends comedy and drama in an entertaining yet thematically rich narrative. Traditionally, it features a straight Caucasian male protagonist played by an actor whose performance can be described as “surprising” because audiences are seeing him either for the first time or for the first time in a capacity like this. He usually undergoes some kind of trauma in the first act and is forced to define himself in the face of these trying circumstances, more by who he is than what he does. Of course, he could never discover these things without some help from a fun ensemble cast there to support him. (In just the first day alone at the 2016 festival, both Other People and The Fundamentals of Caring felt cut from this mold.) This taxonomy is overly reductive, sure, but the kind of film that traditionally breaks out from the festival has become a genre unto itself with a set of identifiable conventions.
The recognition and subsequent rejection of the typical Sundance film coincides with a tidal wave of changes in the media landscape that has split the trajectory of the Sundance filmmaker. The last real mainstream hit from the festival was Precious, which scored $47 million back in 2009. Brooklyn, the non-Sundance film, appears poised to become the highest grossing festival selection of the 2010s, so long as it can gross roughly $4 million more to pass A Walk in the Woods – ironically, another film whose studio decided not to bill it as a Sundance film. The days of hits like Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, or even (500) Days of Summer seem like a distant memory.
The first wave of Sundance filmmakers in the ’80s had to be purely committed to their craft just to eke out an existence in the homogenous film culture of the decade. Between the decline of New Hollywood mavens like Coppola and Cimino and the rise of the blockbuster, the timing of the festival’s inaugural era practically necessitated a unified oppositional voice. Some, like the Coen Brothers, have found ways to carve out a place in the studio ecosystem for their iconoclastic brand of filmmaking. Others, like Jim Jarmusch, have more or less stayed in a similar caliber of lo-fi cinema.
But with the so-called indie cinema movement of the early 1990s, where cheaper and more accessible video and filming equipment inspired a new generation to pick up the camera, a certain homogeneity of purpose seized the Sundance filmmaker. Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, all of whom debuted early works at Sundance, wanted to develop their auteurist sensibilities on a grand scale. With the notable exception of passionate television defector Soderbergh, all have tenaciously stuck to their guns in making theatrically exhibited films. They helped establish Sundance as an institution, and the films they later unveiled on the world stage gained crucial external validation from audiences and key voting bodies.
To keep making these movies, they graduated to greater financing and even studio backing in some instances. Now, there is neither the infrastructure nor the willpower to produce the kind of adult drama made at mid-range budgets in Hollywood. Chad Hartigan, who premiered his third film Morris from America at this year’s festival, described a larger epidemic of movies becoming two things: “One is the hundred-million-dollar movies you see in the theater, and the other is everything else you watch on iTunes or Netflix.”
The would-be next vanguard of Sundance has largely failed to take the mantle from the ‘90s filmmakers. Since that defining decade of the festival, the trajectories of the directors making auspicious starts at Sundance have splintered in three different directions. Some have managed to follow the path of their predecessors and keep making humane, personal dramas – but the list is fairly small. Tom McCarthy, Kenneth Longergan, Drake Doremus, Damien Chazelle, and the duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are among the few to keep making splashes in the realm of theatrical feature films.
A small fraction gets recruited by major studios to take on large branded entertainment. Gareth Edwards, Marc Webb, Colin Trevorrow, Jon Watts, Ryan Coogler, and now Taika Waititi have all been scooped up after auspicious Sundance bows to take on massive tentpole titles. By not hiring a more established name, the studios cut costs on the directors and also get more clout in the editing room. In exchange, these fledgling directors get experience on large productions and can tap into funds to make the movies they really want. Witness Trevorrow starting production on a small dramedy, The Book of Henry, almost immediately his Jurassic World shattered box office records.
But perhaps most notably, they turn to television and streaming services, which are currently providing the budgets and creative freedom to develop the voices of emerging artists. 20 years ago, female filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt broke out at Sundance and have since worked almost exclusively in film. Had she debuted films in this generation, though, maybe she would have been enticed by the possibilities of a series at Amazon like Sundance’s 2013 Best Director winner Jill Soloway. And Lee Daniels, who until only recently was the first Oscar-nominated director to emerge from Sundance this millennium, has found a comfortable home on network television with “Empire.” The expansion of television viewing opportunities has proved a fertile ground for storytelling geared toward niche audiences.
This rupture in the Sundance pipeline to Hollywood is a multi-faceted issue, one that compounds structural, technological and individual changes. To pin it all on the filmmakers does not solve the problem. They are contending with a moviegoing audience shrinking in size and increasing in ambivalence. Sundance has changed what it means to be a “Sundance film,” seeking out more daring and original voices outside the mainstream of white male filmmakers. The cinemagoing public embraced more films by women and people of color in 2015 than ever before, so hopefully the spirit of exploring the unfamiliar will soon spread to indie audiences.
This new era may be written off as disappointing when the history books are written, but a better word to describe it would be different. It just might take some time for people to appreciate a festival programming staff as intrepid as the filmmakers they feature. And even in spite of the negativity generated over a handful of underwhelming offerings, this January like so many before, fans and the industry flock to Park City not just to watch but to discover. Their continued attendance and attention just confirms Sundance’s role in the film world as the equivalent of “Saturday Night Live” to comedy. It’s a platform for the present and a breeding ground for the future. Just how different that future looks, however, may depend on the reactions coming out of the festival now.