Repeat fest visits pose challenges both creatively and commercially
In its 30 years, the Sundance Film Festival has become one of — if not the — best launchpad for first-time filmmakers. More importantly, though, the festival actively tries to stay in touch with those who got their start in Park City, creating a widespread family of Sundance veterans.
But returning to the snowy slopes of Park City creates both creative and commercial pressures.
Mark Duplass, the mumblecore multi-hyphenate, who has become a Sundance staple in recent years with such pics as “Cyrus” and “Safety Not Guaranteed,” says simply, “I would have no career if not for Sundance. Period.”
Is there added pressure being a veteran, though?
“Hell yes!” Duplass told Variety. “There is always a small part of me that feels like I shouldn’t be going to Sundance at all — that Sundance should be for brand-new discoveries only. But, to be perfectly honest, I’m most comfortable and inspired in the independent space.”
This year, Sundance welcomed returning filmmakers including Duplass (pictured), who stars in “The One I Love,” which he exec produced along with “The Skeleton Twins.” (Both films still are up for grabs for distribution. Update: “Skeleton Twins” was sold to Lionsgate-Roadside and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions after this post was published. “The One I Love” sold to Radius-TWC.)
Ira Sachs, who has been attending the Sundance Film Festival since 1979 (his father worked for the Holiday Inn and helped develop the Yarrow Theater), returns to Park City this year with his sixth festival entry, “Love Is Strange,” a gay marriage-themed drama starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.
“I think it’s very important to have a sense of humor about yourself and what’s at stake,” said Sachs, referring to the pressures of selling a film. (“Love Is Strange” sold to Sony Classics.)
“As a return visitor, you have a perspective of the highs and lows and that it’s not all so important,” Sachs added.
And while Sachs’ poignant, timely drama ultimately received glowing reviews, including from Variety, the question of whether a filmmaker delivered an equally effective sophomore or subsequent film both in terms of creative and commercial outlook weighs on its sales prospects. The comparison is made even worse if the festival debut was a hit either critically or financially. (Good luck Benh Zeitlin!)
That’s part of the reason behind the calmer sales climate this year, according to several buyers.
A number of first-time feature filmmakers making their Sundance debut set a high bar this year, including Damien Chazelle, whose U.S. competition entry “Whiplash” garnered rave responses and was quickly scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics.
Sundance vet Lynn Shelton at the festival with Premieres film “Laggies,” who was awarded Variety‘s Indie Impact Award, said the comparisons to her previous Sundance entries “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” are certainly a concern.
“I found myself getting caught up with my previous films and buyers’ expectations,” Shelton said. “But it’s out of my control. My part to play is to make the best film possible.”
Duplass adds that the benefits of returning to Sundance outweigh any disadvantages.
“Sundance is the greatest place to show unique, independent films,” Duplass said. “So basically I’m addicted to it, and I’ll keep going back as long as they’ll have me.”