Robert Redford had said that he wanted this year’s Sundance film festival, which celebrated its 30th anniversary, to go back to its independent roots. But even as some of the films felt smaller and took bigger risks, that didn’t mean they struck a chord with audiences in Park City.
On Main Street, a common rumbling among many festivalgoers was they hadn’t seen enough films they loved, despite a diverse slate. Netflix arrived with a documentary about a washed-up presidential candidate (“Mitt”), and there were mixed reviews for features headlined by A-list talent such as Kristen Stewart (“Camp X-Ray”), Anne Hathaway (“Song One”) and Zach Braff (“Wish I Was Here”). The festival’s other constituency, up-and-coming actors and directors, often struggled to get noticed.
As Sundance draws to a close on Sunday, only a handful of films have sold so far. Some of these titles, including “Whiplash” and “The One I Love,” were from young directors while others (such as “Wish I Was Here”) didn’t really need a launching pad. Films by Sundance veterans Jim Mickle (“Cold in July”), Mike Cahill (“I Orgins”) and Lynn Shelton (“Laggies) are all considered success stories.
Still, success is a relative word. A24, one of the newer distributors in town, only coughed up $1.75 million for “Laggies,” a slapstick romantic comedy starring Keira Knightley, and even less for “Obvious Child,” the rare example of an acquisition with untested talent. It stars newcomer Jenny Slate and was directed by Gillian Robespierre.
Even the most high-profile projects didn’t top about $3 million. That’s a significant drop from when “Little Miss Sunshine” landed $10.5 million from Fox Searchlight in 2006 or when “The Way, Way Back” sold for $9.75 million last year. As the studios continue to tighten their purse strings, their specialty divisions are worried about overpaying for films that underdeliver.
Harvey Weinstein, who was once a fearless Sundance presence, has yet to be a major player at this year’s festival. Focus Features, after a corporate reshuffling that has put FilmDistrict CEO Peter Schlessel in charge, now looks to be in the business of releasing comedies starring the alumni of “High School Musical” or “Scrubs.”
What does this all mean for the future of independent film? It used to be that big stars who did indie films were brave trendsetters. Now they are just looking for a paycheck. The studio tentpoles have made it hard for even the most most famous actors, which may explain why Kristen Stewart would agree to star in a grim drama about Guantanamo Bay. And the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards have been slowly transforming into the Golden Globes, where the celebrity nominees overshadow the real ingenues.
At the start of this year’s festival, The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote about how there are too many films being made. It’s important, however, to emphasize this caveat. As television and the Internet have made consumption habits increasingly fractured, independent movies have suffered by following a similar path–perhaps lured by the false security of VOD and digital acquisitions, which still aren’t substantially paying off. The biggest shortcoming of this year’s festival wasn’t a glut of product, it was in a dearth of stories that seemed to have enough audience appeal. In other words, Park City suffered from looking like Park Slope.
There were so many movies set in Brooklyn (starting with “Obvious Child” and continuing with “Appropriate Behavior”), it’s surprising that Lena Dunham never made an appearance. “The Girls” creator co-stars in “Happy Christmas,” a movie that received positive reviews even if it felt like a 80-minute HBO pilot. And even though “Happy Christmas” was set in Chicago, it still had a Williamsburg vibe, perhaps from all the improvisation that mimics “Girls.” The target audience is a limited demographic.
Another Brooklyn-set ode was “Song One,” directed by first-time director Kate Barker-Froyland, who made a point of announcing her Brooklyn roots at a public screening. The musical dramedy was obviously meant as a New York version of “Once,” but it’s not as commercial as it could have been. Its star Anne Hathaway, who recently won the Oscar for “Les Miserables,” doesn’t even croon onscreen, a decision that will hurt the film’s box office prospects. The movie also could have done without the subplot involving the brother in a coma.
Much of the slate was especially dreary — it seemed like every film at Sundance featured a suicide attempt, a car crash or mental illness. This isn’t a new lament. But as the marketplace becomes more competitive, indie filmmakers might want to consider adapting. Not every project needs to feel so tortured. Justin Simien’s satirical “Dear White People,” which has yet to find a distributor, is one of the few comedies at this year’s festival with breakout potential. The same goes for the dark yet funny “The Skeleton Twins,” starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, which was acquired by Lionsgate.
There were other good features at this year’s festival too — although two of the best, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” and Lars Von Trier’s “Nyphomaniac: Part 1” weren’t part of the U.S. dramatic competition. The lesson of Sundance 2014 is simple enough: make better movies about topics that are more accessible. Now that studios are mostly interested in sequels and comic book sagas, independent film could step up to fill the gaps they don’t serve. In other words, it doesn’t need to all be so niche.