Sundance Wrap-Up: Malia Obama, Music Stars and Nostalgia Loom Large as Standing Ovations Hit Park City

The sun is setting on the 2024 installment of the Sundance Film Festival, closing out a milestone 40th edition and leaving many headlines in its wake. Those included a whopping $17 million Netflix acquisition for a buzzy directorial debut, a pro-Palestine protest that shut down Main Street, a Sundance debut for a former first daughter, and the rise of standing ovations across Park City. If you weren’t able to make it out to the mountain, The Hollywood Reporter has rounded up what you missed.

Drawn Out or Dud Dealmaking?

Making an appearance as the moderator for the opening day press conference, Jason Blum, a festival veteran, offered an earnest plea for buyers: “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.” Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen. As with the past few years, dealmaking will continue long after the fest ends. Still, this year has been slow, with less on offer heading into the fest. Jesse Eisenberg’s A Real Pain ($10 million to Searchlight) and the thriller offering It’s What’s Inside ($17 million to Netflix) are the stand-out deals of the fest, with Amazon MGM closing negotiations for My Old Ass in a deal pegged at $15 million. Titles like Thelma are still available and drawing industry interest, along with Will Ferrell and Harper Steele road trip doc Will & Harper and Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story.

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Horror Screens Best at the Fest

In recent years, some of the most buzzed-about and sought-after titles have come from the fest’s genre-focused Midnight section. The 2024 edition inspired similar results. The first title to break through the noise was A24’s I Saw the TV Glow (“It’s refreshing to see such talented queer actors in a film truly worthy of their gifts,” reads THR‘s review.) Elsewhere, Sundance favored son Steven Soderbergh was back at the fest with his own take on the ghost genre, a first-person POV entry titled Presence, which was snapped up by Neon. The biggest sale of the fest thus far came courtesy of Greg Jardin’s wild thriller It’s What’s Inside. The ensemble film, which is best experienced knowing nothing more than the title, landed at Netflix after multiple studios made their interest known. That $17 million deal was reminiscent of last year’s New Zealand title Talk to Me, which landed at A24 and went on to gross over $90 million and has a sequel already in the works.

(L-R) Devon Terrell, Nina Bloomgarden, Reina Hardesty, Madison Davenport, David Thompson, Director Greg Jardin Gavin Leatherwood, James Morosini and Brittany O’Grady attend the "It's What's Inside" Premiere during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival at The Ray Theatre on January 19, 2024 in Park City, Utah.
A $17 million team: Devon Terrell, Nina Bloomgarden, Reina Hardesty, Madison Davenport, David Thompson, Director Greg Jardin Gavin Leatherwood, James Morosini and Brittany O’Grady at the Jan. 19 premiere of It’s What’s Inside.

Malia Obama Debut: Q&As, Student Chat, Late Night Tao Cameo

The former first daughter’s first Sundance is in the books. Arriving in Park City for the showing of her 18-minute short film The Heart, Malia Obama made her red carpet debut by attending the short film program screenings and participating in all the associated Q&As. THR learned that she also filled her schedule with a cameo sharing her film and speaking with Park City high school students in a discussion about writing, creating and directing. But it wasn’t all work and no play for the 24-year-old. After her big premiere, Obama swung by the Neon party at Sommsation Wine Lounge, where she chatted with The White Lotus stars Fred Hechinger and Will Sharpe in a VIP area. Later that night, Obama popped by the Macro Lodge, an annual festival destination presented by the company’s Charles D. King and Stacey Walker King. Then over the weekend, she hit up Tao Park City presented by Poppi. Arriving on Saturday after 1 a.m. and declining red carpet pics, she and an entourage that included reps and close friends posted up at a VIP table next to the stage. Sipping on Casamigos tequila cocktails, Obama “seemed to be in great spirits,” said a source, as she danced a little while watching a performance by Too Short that included a rendition of his hit “Blow the Whistle.” (While The Heart made its Sundance debut, the short had a world premiere at the 2023 edition of the Telluride Film Festival before it moved on to the Chicago International Film Festival and won an award for best live action short.)

Malia Ann Obama attends the "The Heart" Premiere at the Short Film Program 1 during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival at Prospector Square Theatre on January 18, 2024 in Park City, Utah.
Malia Ann Obama attends the The Heart premiere at the Short Film Program 1 on Jan. 18.

Melissa Barrera Hits Main Street for Pro-Palestine Protest

Melissa Barrera wasn’t kidding when she said, “silence is not an option.” The Scream star was fired in November for social media posts that franchise producer Spyglass considered antisemitic. At the time, she said she would continue her activism regarding the conflict in Israel-Gaza. This extended to Sundance, where Barrera joined Pose star Indya Moore and more than a hundred protesters in a pro-Palestine protest that brought Main Street traffic to a complete halt. There were chants of “ceasefire now” and “end the genocide.” A few nights earlier at the opening of her movie Your Monster, Barrera offered, “I think I finally am becoming who I’m supposed to be in life, and the last few months have been a big awakening of that.”

Get on Your Feet, Sundance: Standing Ovations Are Now a Thing

Standing ovations are usually reserved for European festivals, but audiences in Park City seem to be taking cues from the Palais. The Jesse Eisenberg-directed A Real Pain was the first major film of the fest to earn an ovation (“Thank you for standing. I was going to say thank you for staying,” Eisenberg said in correcting himself from the stage while the Eccles audience members erupted from their seats), which was quickly followed by the Megan Park coming-of-age comedy My Old Ass. Later, the Will Ferrell and Harper Steele road trip doc Will & Harper landed multiple standing Os at its emotional premiere, with director Josh Greenbaum becoming emotional on the stage. Other notable standing ovations included Dawn Porter’s Luther: Never Too Much and the Jessica Seinfeld-executive produced documentary Daughters.

Nostalgia Looms Large on Milestone 40th Edition

How many times have you been to Sundance? That was probably the most-often asked question this year as a swarm of scarf-clad festivalgoers returned alongside distinguished alumni to help toast a milestone anniversary. Auteurs and producers like Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, Christine Vachon, Jonathan Wang, Jay and Mark Duplass, Miguel Arteta, Dawn Porter and Richard Linklater participated in programming, awards events and panels. Some even screened their newest works. At the premiere of Soderbergh’s latest film Presence, 35 years after he screened Sex, Lies and Videotape at the fest, an audience member could be overheard saying, “Steven Soderbergh at The Library? What year is this? How cool!” Festival director Eugene Hernandez noted how nostalgia impacted the program and shined a light on special screenings including DIG! XX, Go Fish, Mississippi Masala, Napoleon Dynamite (making a big splash with a Main Street flash mob and free tater tots), The Times of Harvey Milk, Three Seasons and The Babadook. A special Beyond Films panel discussion, seen below, also found Hernandez, Linklater, Porter, Vachon and Arteta talking all things past, present and future in the independent film world.

Sundance Beyond Films Panel
Fest director Eugene Hernandez moderated a nostalgic conversation that featured alumni Richard Linklater, Dawn Porter, Christine Vachon and Miguel Arteta as part of the Beyond Films programming.

Please Don’t Stop the Music

Sundance has long shined a spotlight on music through festival selections, especially documentaries, music-infused features and ancillary programming. This year was no different with a Devo documentary from director Chris Smith, aptly titled Devo; Michael John Warren’s Lolla: The Story of Lollapalooza, a look at the iconic music festival; Lionel Richie turned up for the world premiere of The Greatest Night in Pop, a deep dive into the creation of the iconic song “We Are the World”; and Ondi Timoner’s DIG! XX, the 20th anniversary extended edition of the seminal rock documentary about the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Plus, festival alum Dawn Porter returned to Park City, where she made a splash with an intimate look at the life and career of R&B hitmaker Luther Vandross in Luther: Never Too Much.

This year’s festival also featured films that star several big-name music artists making moves on the big screen including Oscar nominee Andra Day in Exhibiting Forgiveness opposite André Holland, Normani in Freaky Tales opposite Pedro Pascal, Camilla Cabello in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Rob Peace, and Dominic Fike in Little Death opposite David Schwimmer, to name a few.

DEVO screening: Audience is seated for a screening of the Devo documentary during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2024.
Devo screening: Audience members are seated inside the Library Center Theatre for the Devo doc.
(L-R) James Lee Hernandez, Perry Farrell, Michael John Warren and Brian Lazarte attend "LOLLA: THE STORY OF LOLLAPALOOZA" Premiere during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival at Eccles Center Theatre on January 18, 2024 in Park City, Utah.
James Lee Hernandez, Perry Farrell, Michael John Warren and Brian Lazarte at the Lolla: The Story of Lollapalooza world premiere.

On the social scene, music once again made an impact, particularly at the newly opened live music venue The Marquis on Main Street, where Devo, Leon Bridges (presented by Chase Sapphire), Charlie Crockett, Kaskade, Odesza, Paul Oakenfold, Lil Jon and Dirty Heads packed the Premiere Series lineup. The series also featured rockers The Black Keys hitting the stage for back-to-back VIP shows in partnership with LNE Presents, which featured an audience engaging activation by blockchain-based platform The Black Keys also did a late night DJ set following their performance at Cabin (next door to The Marquis) following the Lollapalooza premiere. Elsewhere, rocker Brittany Howard headlined a White Claw activation; SWV delivered a smooth performance at the ENME Indie Directors and Creators Spotlight; Too Short, DJ Mel DeBarge and Sofi Tukker took the stage at Tao Park City; and Brandi Cyrus and Damon Steele helped the Warehouse christen its new location. Prior to the Devo performance at The Marquis, the band celebrated with a special dinner at ChefDance Social presented by Space Perspective and hosted by Mimi Kim and Kenny Griswold. Guests such as Paul Oakenfeld joined the band for a four-course meal presented by chef Shawn McClain and ChefDance executive chef Jordan Harvey.

LGBTQ Films Make Rainbow Splash

Sundance is routinely hailed for hosting curated titles from a variety of genres including nonfiction and international titles to short films and LGBTQ fare. The latter category had a strong showing in 2024, thanks to such titles as Rose Glass’s Kristen Stewart starrer Love Lies Bleeding, described as “brutal, triumphant“; Will Ferrell’s road trip documentary Will & Harper that finds the comedy superstar on a 17-day road trip with his newly out trans friend Harper Steele; the Alex Hedison-directed and Jodie Foster-executive produced ALOK about the gender nonconforming poet, comedian, speaker and writer; the short film Bust from writer-director Angalis Field, starring Pedro Pascal’s little sister Lux Pascal; Jules Rosskam’s short film Desire Lines, about trans masculine identity and sexuality; Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Layla, about a struggling Arab drag queen who falls in love for the first time; Peter Sillen’s documentary competition entry Love Machina, a story centering on Martine and Bina Rothblatt, who attempt to take their courtship beyond “till death do us part”; Esteban Arango’s Ponyboi, written by and starring River Gallo as an intersex prostitute on the run after a drug-riddled entanglement goes sideways over the course of Valentine’s Day in New Jersey; Mikko Mäkelä’s Sebastian, about a 25-year-old aspiring writer turned queer sex worker; Theda Hammel’s debut feature, Stress Positions, starring John Early; and a documentary short titled Merman, about a 59-year-old Black queer man living in Palm Springs.

(L-R) Indya Moore, Esteban Arango, River Gallo, Victoria Pedretti and Dylan O’Brien attend the "Ponyboi" Premiere during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival at Library Center Theatre on January 20, 2024 in Park City, Utah
Indya Moore, Esteban Arango, River Gallo, Victoria Pedretti and Dylan O’Brien at the Ponyboi premiere.

Awards Contenders Make Park City Pit Stop

Christopher Nolan. Robert Downey Jr. Jodie Foster. Colman Domingo. Those are just a few of this year’s awards season standouts who worked a Park City cameo into their schedules in January, proving that having a whole army of entertainment journalists gathered in one place can do wonders for one’s continued profile. Nolan and Downey appeared at the Sundance Institute’s opening night gala, where Nolan was honored with a Trailblazer Award for his decades-long career, which stretches back to the Sundance debut of Memento. Foster turned up to present an award that night, too, and give her Panic Room co-star (and gala honoree) Kristen Stewart a shout-out from the stage. Rustin star Domingo made the rounds, which included a special Gersh Agency brunch in his honor ahead of receiving his first Oscar nomination. The noms were announced bright and early on Tuesday, leading many Sundancers to go to bed early at the festival, something of a rare and noteworthy occurrence.

Robert Downey Jr. and Christopher Nolan
Robert Downey Jr. and Christopher Nolan

Sundance Institute CEO on Fest’s Future: “There Is a Negotiation Coming Up”

As the Sundance Film Festival’s footprint has continued to grow, there have been rumors about a potential move, whether it be out of January or to a different ZIP code altogether. During the fest, Joana Vicente made an appearance on Matt Belloni’s podcast The Town, during which she reiterated the festival’s affections for its beloved home but did confirm that “a negotiation is coming up” with city officials. “Park City is part of Sundance,” Vicente answered. “It’s a beautiful location. It’s kind of remote. We get immersed into the festival.” At that point, Belloni interjected to say, “I feel a but coming,” adding that in his conversations with Uber drivers, restaurant employees and ski industry insiders, “They don’t like Sundance.” There have long been rumblings about Sundance moving out of Park City. Locals have complained about the stress it brings to the small town, with a massive influx of people crushing the city’s local business and public transport every January. But Vicente reiterated the festival’s love for Park City while also acknowledging the hurdles they face. “There are challenges. I mean, accessibility is a challenge. Cost is a challenge.” Insiders say don’t expect a relocation, but a date change is not out of the question. The current pact is said to expire in 2026.

(L-R) Jason Blum, Joana Vicente, Eugene Hernandez and Kim Yutani speak onstage at the Sundance Scoop Press Conference during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival at Filmmaker Lodge on January 18, 2024 in Park City, Utah.
Sundance Institute CEO, Joana Vicente (second from left) participates in a kick off conversation alongside moderator Jason Blum, festival director Eugene Hernandez and director of programming Kim Yutani at Filmmaker Lodge on Jan. 18.

For more from Sundance, see photos from THR‘s lounge.

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