Just a few short hours before the first wave of films hit the big screen to kick off the milestone 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival, one of Hollywood’s most prolific producers offered high praise for what Robert Redford and his team started here in Park City.
“Sundance is a vital, vital part of the entertainment ecosystem, and I think it’s undervalued in that way,” said Jason Blum as he took the stage inside the Filmmakers Lodge on Thursday morning to moderate Sundance Scoop, a press conference and conversation that set the stage for this year’s fest. “Without Sundance, the United States would not be where it is in entertainment, and I really think not enough people make that connection.”
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To be fair, Blum is the ultimate Sundance insider. He’s been attending the festival since 1992. One of his first major screenings was Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites starring Blum’s longtime good friend and collaborator Ethan Hawke — the two almost missed the showing after being stuck in a snow bank — and he now serves on the Sundance Institute board of trustees. “I’ve been here almost every year since, and it holds a very, very important place in my heart. Also, my business would not be what it is without Sundance.”
After dishing out the compliments, he welcomed a trio to join him in the lights: Joana Vicente, Sundance Institute CEO; Eugene Hernandez, director of Sundance Film Festival and head of public programming; and Kim Yutani, Sundance Film Festival director of programming. The conversation covered the past, present and future of Sundance, the panelists’ favorite fest memories, acquisitions predictions and Hollywood’s recent strikes.
Regarding the dual strikes, the impacts of which continue to loom large over the industry, Yutani said the work stoppages didn’t dent the submissions. Programmers received a record number of 17,435 submissions from 153 countries or territories, including 4,410 feature-length films. She cited two films that made the cut as indies that received SAG Interim agreements, Sean Wang’s Didi and Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s Ghostlight.
“We have assembled a program that includes movies that deserve to find their audience. These filmmakers are ready, these films are ready for their audience,” Hernandez said in continuing the strike commentary as it related to acquisitions activity. “In doing my own reporting the last few weeks talking to different buyers and sellers checking in about how things look, I hear an enthusiasm. Everyone I’ve talked to said they’re showing up looking to connect with and to consider films for distribution. We have a slate that is ready to meet its audience and the industry.”
Blum jumped in with his own thoughts by noting the dire situation facing the exhibition marketplace this year. “The release schedule for the first half of the year is decimated and I hope, particularly for theatrical distributors, that the market should be very, very healthy. My hope is that the one positive thing about the strike is that a lot of movies that might’ve struggled shouldn’t because there are so many holes in the release schedule. I hope that a bunch of Sundance movies wind up in theaters quickly in the next six months.”
Vicente then noted that 80 percent of festival titles presented are “open,” meaning available for acquisition. “Fresh” and “bold” are adjectives she used to describe the slate. “We go through cycles. Sometimes everyone is talking about, ‘It’s the end of independent film.’ I think Sundance is always a place of renewal. It’s always a place of discovery. The films are so compelling, and we are very hopeful that they will find a way to connect with audiences.”
The event marked Hernandez’s official debut of this year’s festival after taking over as director. He got the job in 2022 but didn’t assume the post until it came time to program this year’s festival. Hernandez is well known in film circles as one of the founding members of IndieWire and as the longtime chief of Film at Lincoln Center.
“It definitely feels very different sitting in this chair than in one of these chairs where I’ve sat for many, many years,” he said, noting that he’s been coming to the festival for three decades. “That’s what has always excited me about Sundance is the opportunity to come here … and see films by some filmmakers who you’re familiar with but the chance to walk into a theater today at noon, all day today and [over] this weekend, and to be introduced to someone new, something new. I really hope you’ll take that opportunity and just explore.”
A lighter moment of the conversation came as each of the panelists shared their favorite Sundance memories. Blum singled out two special experiences, including bringing his film Whiplash to the festival. He noted how proud he was to see that Damien Chazelle’s film starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons snagged a No. 1 spot on Sundance’s just-released list of the top 10 films over 40 years as selected from a poll surveying the film community.
Sundance’s top 10 list includes another Blum special, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, alongside Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Stephen Soderberg’s sex, lies and videotape, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Boyhood, Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple.
Blum recalled screening the film and sending an email to acquisitions executives inviting them to a bar on Main Street afterwards. “We’ll be waiting for you and taking offers,” he said of the email that landed with a thud. “Like an hour and a half after the screening, Lionsgate showed up, like, ‘We’ll offer you $5 for your movie.” He was joking about the last part but not about this: “What Sundance is so amazing at is drawing attention to movies that would not get attention. Whiplash wouldn’t have had the career the thing it had without it.”
Same for Peele’s Get Out. “All of us really didn’t know what we had. We knew it was different. We knew it was special. We had no idea what audiences would think about it,” he recalled of the Oscar-nominated best picture. “And the first ever screening with a public audience was here at the Library. And people went crazy and [Barack Obama’s] daughter was in the audience — that was amazing. That’s what started the whole thing.”
Yutani’s singled out a showing at the Eccles of John Carney’s Flora and Son. “It was just an incredible experience to feel the energy from the audience, and that is what reminds me of what Sundance is, what we do so well and what we will always do.”
Hernandez recalled his first Sundance experience, coming to Park City in 1993 and taking in a screening of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi. “That was a transformational experience for me as an attendee. I still have the ticket at home from that experience,” he said. Someone else might also have a memento from that year. “I guess there weren’t a lot of Latinos at the festival that year because somebody came up to me and asked me for my autograph [thinking I was Robert Rodriguez]. I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I signed it.”
Sundance runs Jan. 18-28 in Park City, with selections available online later in the week.
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