Sundance: Festival Suffers From Too Much Brooklyn

Sundance Films from Kristen Stewart and

With many of the films featuring dark themes, distributors were cautious about prices and pickups

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.

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  1. JD says:

    Note to Sundance committee and indie film makers: your angsty films, though at times beautiful due to good cinematography, really are mundane and recycle the same characters and situations. Also, TRY to use other locations other than NYC. I know that’s where your pals are, but c’mon.

  2. Mary McGloin says:

    I have always found it odd that film festivals like this are touted as supporting the indie film community yet the films that get picked star major celebrities. Really taking a risk there. Don’t forget about the rest of us who create art and struggle to be seen and heard.

  3. Mick says:

    This is just poorly written… how do you have a job at Variety?

  4. Sam says:

    Gee, maybe Kristen Stewart agreed to do Camp XRay because indie movies are her roots, she liked the story, the cast and the crew, and it filmed locally and in a short time since she need to go to Europe for 3 months right away.

    • Mike says:

      Camp X-ray is a dull movie. No wonder no one picked it up. Stewart has seen her days and she is now just grasping at whatever projects come her way.

  5. While this piece makes some valid points it is worth noting that these are the films The Festival Selected. If Park City really did resemble Park Slope too much that would be the festival programmers’ fault, wouldn’t it?

  6. Dan says:

    You didn’t actually watch any of these movies, did you? Song One is not a dramedy. It’s just a drama. Also, Anne Hathaway does sing multiple times in the movie, though her character is not meant to be musically talented. Also, making the claim that Joe Swanberg stole his improvisational style from Lena Dunham reveals quite a bit of ignorance in regards to the recent history of independent cinema. You only have to read the first sentence of Swanberg’s wikipedia page to know that isn’t accurate.

  7. David K says:

    Maybe we’re due for another renaissance a la 1996? Shine, Fargo, Breaking the Waves etc.

  8. nathan says:

    Why are all these movies set in Brooklyn? It’s called the NY state film tax incentive.

    • JD says:

      Because other cities & states don’t have film tax incentives. Chicago. Atlanta. New Orleans. Toronto. Columbus. You get the idea.

  9. Nanny Mo says:

    Porn? Redford wants it to go back to more porn? Okay, we’ll see how well that sells.

  10. Julienne says:

    I’m shocked that Distributors are entertaining buying this crap. YOU’LL LOSE MONEY…HELLO?

  11. Glenn C. says:

    Well written and some good points Ramin. Very true.

  12. Star says:

    It’s a curation problem… Cooper emphasizes quotas over quality.

    Don’t be surprised when Tribeca has a better slate than Sundance. And SXSW film side is the ultimate winner of the split, as they continue to book crowd-pleasing fare.

  13. NoPCforMe says:

    It’s always about money now,when corperations take over any business, art of every kind suffers. 5 conglomerates run everything and are controlled by Accountants.All of the “creatives” are in fear of their jobs if the #’s don’t add up at the end of the year. CYA is their new mantra from casting all the way up. Netflix and Amazon might keep hope and creativity alive and if there is a consistant $$$ stream then the “Big 5” will sniff it out and copy the business model (already in progess) and ruin it.

  14. Rico says:

    This is a uniquely sour view of Sundance. Using the purchase prices as a standard for evaluating quality, while useful in a business context, perverts the spirit of the event. I was at Sundance for a week and saw quite a few good, if not necessarily great, films, few of which reeked of Brooklyn, as this writer suggests.

  15. Dick Delson says:

    There is never too much Brooklyn.

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