Three years ago, filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West got a dream Sundance debut. They premiered their film "RBG" to a sold-out crowd with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg not only in attendance but seeing it for the first time. There was a standing ovation, a bidding war and a big sale. It also went on to be a major awards contender. It's the kind of Sundance experience most filmmakers fantasize about.
This year they're returning to the festival with their follow-up, "My Name is Pauli Murray" about the somewhat obscure legal trailblazer, and while their excitement remains high, the festival itself will be quite different. Like so many in the past year, Sundance has had to reinvent itself as a mostly virtual experience.
Still, the 2021 Festival which kicks off Thursday is shaping up to be a robust market for companies looking for content. More than 72 feature films are debuting over the seven days. It's slimmed-down lineup from the previous years' 118 and some already have ways to get to audiences, like Robin Wright's "Land" and "Judas and the Black Messiah," which will both be available to the masses in the coming weeks. But many this year are acquisition titles seeking distribution deals.
"Buyers and sellers have found a rhythm for conducting business at virtual markets, to great success. And consumers are continuing to ask for more content," said Deb McIntosh, an SVP at Endeavor Content. "I'm confident that we'll find distribution partners for all of our films."
Julie Dansker, an executive at Shout! Studios, is coming to the virtual festival looking for films to buy and Sundance, she said, always offers a variety of films from established and emerging talents.
This year there are high profile projects from well-known names like actor Rebecca Hall's directorial debut "Passing," starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson as two light-skinned Black women who choose to live on opposite sides of the color line in 1929 New York. Jerrod Carmichael is making his debut with the dark satire "On the Count of Three" with Christopher Abbott and Tiffany Haddish. Questlove is too with his opening night documentary "Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)." Zoe Lister-Jones also reunites with her "Craft: Legacy" star Cailee Spaeny for "How It Ends," co-starring Olivia Wilde and Fred Armisen. And "CODA," a day one film from Sian Heder about a child of deaf adults, is expected to be one of the breakouts.
As always, the documentary sections are fertile ground for buyers. Cohen and West's "My Name is Pauli Murray" is among the sales titles as is Mariem Pérez Riera's "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It," which examines how the entertainer battled racism to become one of the few performers to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Lucy Walker has a documentary about the history of wildfires, "Bring Your Own Brigade" and Jonas Poher Rasmussen will debut his animated refugee documentary "Flee."
And then there's the more unconventional efforts like animator Dash Shaw's psychedelic "Cryptozoo," featuring the voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera and Grace Zabriskie. Or Nattawut Poonpiriya's Wong Kar-Wai produced drama "One for the Road" and Timur Bekmambetov's social media age Romeo and Juliet riff "R#J."
There are boundless "discovery" opportunities for parties looking beyond the flashy names who might just stumble upon the next Ryan Coogler or Damien Chazelle.
As Sundance programmer Kim Yutani said, "You don't really know what these films are until you see them."
Audience enthusiasm for a particular film might be harder to judge virtually, though.
"There's all this energy that happens at a festival when you're in person that is hard to translate to a virtual environment," said Jordan Fields, head of acquisitions for Shout! Studios. "But on the upside, it gives us the ability to judge movies a little more objectively because we're not necessarily influenced by a crowd who stands up to cheer it at the end."
And indeed, for better or worse, that in-person energy has often played a role in negotiating the price. Sometimes the hype is warranted, and you get a "Little Miss Sunshine." But other times off the mountain, the glow fades and companies are left with a flop. Prices have also been going up steadily due to the influx of deep-pocketed streaming companies who don't have to worry as much or at all about box office returns.
Six years ago, Amazon and Netflix both struggled to get titles. Now, the streamers are some of the biggest players in the game. Last year saw Hulu and NEON pay over $17.5 million (a record) for the worldwide rights to the Andy Samberg comedy "Palm Springs." "Boys State" also got a $12 million deal from Apple and A24. This year there is an added anxiety about content since many productions were put on hold because of the pandemic.
But there's also opportunity in the fact that there could be a bigger and more diverse audience seeing the films who may never have had the opportunity to attend the expensive festival. The cost of entry for the virtual films is $15 a ticket and many are sold out.
"Taking Sundance off the mountain and to the whole country will be a beautiful way to commune together over our shared love and need for artistic expression," said McIntosh.
There have already been a few pre-Festival deals. RLJE Films on Tuesday announced that it had acquired the Nicolas Cage film "Prisoners of the Ghostland," Magnolia Pictures took the rights to "A Glitch in the Matrix" from "Room 237" director Rodney Ascher, Bleecker Street snagged the Ed Helms drama "Together Together" and Juno Films picked up the documentary "The Most Beautiful Boy" about Swedish actor Bjorn Andresen. But many are holding back pre-screenings and waiting until the actual Sundance premiere.
"I'm still excited," said Hall, whose "Passing" premieres Saturday. "But would I rather that we were all together wandering through the snow, freezing cold and, you know, trudging down Main Street? Yes, I would, because that communal experience is part of it."