Hits, misses and deals: what can we learn from this year’s Sundance?

It wasn’t just the altitude that was causing a shortness of breath at this year’s Sundance film festival. The Utah-based congregation, known for unveiling some of the most exciting and influential independent films over the last few decades, had made an inevitable retreat online because of the pandemic but this year saw a much-hyped return to in-person premieres (with a reduced digital component still), a major test for organisers and the industry at large.

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So once again, the ski destination of Park City was teeming with Hollywood types, showing films and making deals, the festival traditionally viewed as a major marketplace, untethered properties leading to frenzied bidding wars. But while there was an increase in films and buzzy market titles, there was a notable decrease in A-listers. Stars such as Jennifer Aniston, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis, Paul Rudd, Keira Knightley, Steve Carell, Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lopez have all donned beanies and headed to the mountains with new films in the past but this year was more subdued. Sundance, founded in 1978 as a home for daring and innovative independent films existing outside the mainstream, had raised eyebrows over some of its recent scheduling decisions, such as opening the 2020 festival with Netflix’s Taylor Swift documentary, arguably the furthest it could get from its mission statement. The streamer had started to dominate the festival in recent years, using it as a way to build hype for in-house films, but it was also notably quiet this year going in, another sign of a festival returning to its roots.

There was plenty of noise elsewhere though with some major audience hits playing to packed-out venues and a string of big money deals. While some of the buzzier titles are still to be officially purchased, it looks like the two biggest pick-ups were also the two films to have provoked the loudest audience reactions. While Cannes might be known for inspiring audible repulsion and disgust from its overdramatic attendees (famously reviled premieres include The Neon Demon, Marie Antoinette, Irreversible and The Paperboy), Sundance tends to engender more positivity (memorably adored premieres include Little Miss Sunshine, Palm Springs, Happy Texas and Blinded by the Light, with mixed box office results after).

Phoebe Dynevor, Chloe Domont and Alden Ehrenreich.
Phoebe Dynevor, Chloe Domont and Alden Ehrenreich. Photograph: MJ Photos/Rex/Shutterstock

On the first full day of the festival, an afternoon premiere of the erotic thriller Fair Play became an unexpectedly hot ticket (it was reported that at least 50 ticket holders were turned away, along with others hoping for rush availability) and to those who managed to get in, it became the first audible in-person smash of the year. The film, from first-time writer-director Chloe Domont, is a modernised #TimesUp spin on 80s and 90s thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Disclosure, focused on a couple who live and work together turning against each other when one gets a promotion. Based less around the staples of the films it recalls, such as murder and infidelity, and more around misogyny and male ego, it was loudly received with gasps and cheers and became an instant button-pushing talking point. Critical acclaim (an Indiewire poll of critics named it the best film of the fest) and social media buzz helped create a heated auction with a reported half a dozen bidders, including Searchlight and Neon. Netflix won out with a massive $20m deal for worldwide rights, the reaction and the purchase serving as an early sign that things were back on track.

Serving as a more traditional Sundance crowd-pleaser, writer-director John Carney (whose films Once and Sing Street were both audience hits at the festival) brought the sweet, string-pulling music drama Flora and Son, starring Eve Hewson as a single mother learning to play the guitar. It was a late addition to the festival, premiering at one of the smaller venues, and no one could have anticipated just how ebullient its first audience would be, laughing, cheering and clapping along to the film’s big final song. It didn’t take long for Apple to snap it up, for over $20m, aiming to repeat the success of Coda, which the company bought for a record $25m and led it to a best picture Oscar win.

It’s bittersweet, the two films that inspired the most enthused audience reactions heading to streaming services (neither Netflix nor Apple has yet discussed release strategies) but also glumly realistic perhaps given how adult-aiming films such as these have fared at the box office of late. Both films are contemporary spins on stories that would have been smash hits in a prior decade but may have to settle for viewers shouting and/or clapping at their TVs instead.

Whether the latter can follow Coda to awards glory is questionable but at the festival that premiered Oscar-winners Minari, The Father and Promising Young Woman at its last physical iteration, eyes were also on which films and performers might be able to do the same this year. The most likely candidate is Jonathan Majors, who broke out at Sundance with The Last Black Man in San Francisco in 2020, and delivered an oppositional turn this year with the hard-edged character study Magazine Dreams. While the film, a dark, often derivative descent into Taxi Driver territory, received mixed notices, all were in agreement about Majors’ indelibility as an obsessive bodybuilder losing his grip, the kind of bold, physically transformative piece of acting that the Academy tends to reward. The film is still up for acquisition but with Majors’ star about to ascend (he plays bad guy roles in Ant-Man and Creed sequels this spring), expect a long campaign for this one.

The film which deservedly garnered some of the most effusive reviews of the festival is one that could also parlay that into awards love, the delicate yet slowly devastating romance drama Past Lives. It’s a stunning triptych following a Korean couple at three vital periods: as childhood sweethearts, reconnecting online as twentysomethings and then a fateful encounter in their 30s. While the film is a slow burn, the last act takes a hugely emotive turn and at the premiere on Saturday, there were audible tears. It’s likely to stand as one of the year’s most adored movies and with A24 behind it, expect to hear a lot more about it and its supremely talented playwright turned writer-director Celine Song.

It was a film that had everyone talking throughout the week (the answer to “What’s been the best thing you’ve seen?” was mostly “Well, Past Lives obviously”), as did the day’s other big premiere but in this instance it was for all of the wrong reasons. An adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s provocative short story Cat Person was always going to be a heated topic but after it finally premiered, most of the discussion was hinged on what a mess it was. Starring Coda’s Emilia Jones and Succession’s Nicholas Braun, it turned the effectively haunting tale of a student dating a mysterious older man into a literal horror, destroying any initial subtlety (tellingly, the film is still up for sale). The night also saw the premiere of Eileen, the adaptation of another buzzy millennial’s story of a woman getting involved with an unknowable older stranger, this time played by Thomasin McKenzie and the festival’s biggest A-lister, Anne Hathaway. The star hasn’t got the greatest track record at Sundance with Song One and The Last Thing He Wanted fizzling but she was lauded for her knockout performance this year, as a dolled-up potential femme fatale, and while the film remains in acquisition limbo, it could be the substantive dramatic comeback she’s been searching for recently.

Another star turn that everyone could agree on came from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, last at the festival with her poorly received Force Majeure remake Downhill, and at the start of a splashy leap into movie stardom (the once cinema-shy actor has another two movies out this year). Until this year, she had only ever led one movie, Nicole Holofcener’s 2013 comedy Enough Said, and at Sundance, she unveiled their reunion, the biting comedy You Hurt My Feelings. There was a combination of awkward and belly laughs at the premiere, the film dealing with the limits of honesty within a marriage, and while the Academy has erred away from rewarding more comedic roles in recent years, there could be enough salt and sadness in Louis-Dreyfus’s top-tier turn to sneak her way into the race.

There were also breakout turns from less established film forces such as Teyana Taylor, most commonly associated with music and reality TV, who impressed with an impassioned performance as a mother who kidnaps her son from a foster family in A Thousand and One. The film won the grand jury prize within the US dramatic competition and showed Taylor and first-time director AV Rockwell to be talents worth keeping an eye on. First-time director Raine Allen Miller also delivered an intriguing sign of things to come with crowd-pleasing London-set romcom Rye Lane, a brightly hued Before Sunset-adjacent tale of two twentysomethings flirting over the course of a day. Another British success came from We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor, whose inventive and ambitious feature debut Polite Society took a Jane Austen marriage plot and turned it into a ballsy action comedy (expect her to land a big franchise gig within the year).

The festival has seen a welcome rise in diversity both in front of, and crucially, behind the camera with each year but this iteration felt like a real turning point with female film-makers, and female film-makers of colour, truly dominating (out of the 10 films mentioned, eight of them are directed by women).

The return to in-person buzz was mostly a success, affecting some major sales and providing a more substantive kick-off to some audience favourites but despite cheers that could be heard from high up the many mountains, theatrical distributors were mostly silent. The biggest sale was in-the-know mockumentary Theater Camp, which sold to Searchlight for $8m, far behind the big hitters, and also a questionable choice for a broad cinema-led release strategy (the Guardian’s Adrian Horton likened it to “secondhand comedy, as if sitting in on a friend group’s exchange of inside jokes you’re not privy to”). So while audiences may have returned en masse for the festival, the bracing truth is that for most of the films they went to see, they probably won’t be seen by such a crowd ever again.