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Sundance Puts Spotlight on Politically-Charged Films

A year ago at Sundance, #OscarsSoWhite and related outrage over a lack of diversity in Hollywood fueled an industrywide push of films with people of color, igniting a record $17.5 million bidding war for “The Birth of a Nation” and, later on, helping propel “Moonlight” and other films toward year-end Oscar campaigns.

This year, widespread anger over the presidential election and a celeb-packed Park City offshoot of the Women’s March on Washington raise the question: Will other issues that newly disenfranchised audiences care about boost interest in any of the slew of politically charged films at Sundance, helping to sow the seeds for another “Fahrenheit 9/11”?

There’s certainly money to be made from political films that cater to audiences who feel outraged, as shown by right-wing docs that have galvanized audiences angered by President Obama. 2016’s top-grossing doc by a wide margin was Dinesh D’Souza’s “Hillary’s America,” ($13.1 million), a follow up to his and John Sullivan’s 2012 film “2016: Obama’s America,” which made $33.4 million and became the fifth biggest doc of all time.

Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper and programming director Trevor Groth’s selections may help generate a similar left-wing firestorm.

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“It really is the year for looking at police corruption and problems with our criminal justice system,” says Groth, citing “Strong Island,” “The Force,” “Whose Streets?” and the Spike docuseries “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” Hard-hitting projects on Syrian war crimes (“Cries From Syria,” “Last Men in Aleppo,” “City of Ghosts”) and resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (the Viceland series “Rise”) are also in the lineup.

Sundance’s biggest political effort is its first New Climate program, a collection of environmental projects featuring the Park City return of that other losing presidential candidate who won the popular vote, Al Gore. He will be in town for “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” Paramount and Participant’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“An important reason it’s being made now is that, as opposed to 10 years ago, the solutions are here, and [Gore is] very optimistic about where we can go,” says co-director Bonni Cohen.

“After the November election, people who saw progress being made really felt a blow,” adds co-director Jon Shenk. “They’re looking for ways to shine a light on the path forward, and we’re hoping this film can be that.”

As for those interested in President-elect Donald Trump, all eyes will be on the fest’s last-minute addition of Banks Tarver, Ted Bourne, and Mary Robertson’s doc “Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time” from Showtime Documentary Films, set for a Jan. 27 premiere before its Feb. 3 cable debut. It uses reconfigured and unseen footage shot from the beginning of Trump’s campaign during the network’s series “The Circus.”

But Vinnie Malhotra, the network’s senior VP of documentaries, unscripted and sports programming, says viewers shouldn’t expect a polemic. “It will appeal to everybody, to any interested observer of American politics,” he says, noting that multiple distributors have inquired about a possible theatrical run. “We’ve tried to let events and the words of the candidate speak for themselves in a vérité approach, so it has more of a serious tone than the series.”

How will this fly with as divisive a candidate as Trump? “I think people will see what they want to see in it,” Malhotra says. “Some may want us to be a little harder at times, some a little easier at times. We’ve tried to be as observational and objective as possible, without giving a lot of editorial opinion. It’s hard to say what emotional sparks it’s going to ignite, but it’s such a personal story to so many people that it’s bound to incite a lot of emotions in whoever watches it.”

The fest’s New Climate program was created with a far stronger agenda. “This summer, we were talking with Robert Redford and [Sundance Institute board of trustees chair] Pat Mitchell about the dearth of environmental films being made in the past couple of years, and wondering if there was something we could do to draw awareness to them,” Cooper says, citing such impactful films as “Blackfish” and “The Cove.” “Pre-election, it seemed the subject wasn’t being discussed that much, either, so it became even more critical.”

The proposed effort came on the heels of Sundance Institute’s new grant program with the Rauschenberg Foundation to fund four climate change projects, then evolved into a fest section after films like Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Coral” and its accompanying virtual reality short, which document the destruction of coral reefs, were submitted in the fall.

But while the effort to affect climate change policies is inherently political, not all filmmakers are gung-ho about taking that approach. “We’ve been trying not to position Jeff as an environmental filmmaker — he’s not an advocate, he just happened upon these things,” says “Coral” producer Larissa Rhodes.

“Our objective is: how do we get to communities that wouldn’t naturally screen the film, like hunters and fisherman?” Orlowski adds. “The challenge is how to build a campaign that goes beyond [preaching to] the choir.”

A similar thought haunts HBO Documentary Films prexy Sheila Nevins, who’s arguably done more for nonfiction films than any exec in history. She’s proud of the war doc “Cries From Syria,” which premieres Jan. 22 and airs on HBO on March 13.

“It’s like a horror movie, yet it’s real,” Nevins says. “But with social action docus, the people who really need to know [about the subject] are often not going to be sitting there watching them, so they’re tough ones.”

As dealmaking for Sundance titles more often takes place before and after the fest, Sundance has become “less of a market for docus than it used to be, and more a political arena for ideas,” Nevins adds. “Most of the big buyers are making their own films and know all the filmmakers, so they don’t need to go rushing to find the needle in the haystack. They own the haystack and have all the needles.” And despite launching dozens of influential docs, Nevins admits that because narrative film has become more politically active, it’s “probably a better way to change people’s way of thinking, because the message comes under the story and docs may proclaim their message too obviously.”

Several acquisition titles might prove Nevins’ point, offering stories that could appeal to those uneasy with our next president’s stance on the nuclear arms race, racial politics and other issues. These include the Alden Ehrenreich/Jennifer Aniston-toplined Iraq War drama “The Yellow Birds”; Dee Rees’ post-WWII racism drama “Mudbound”; Taylor Sheridan’s Native American reservation thriller “Wind River”; Michael Showalter’s interracial romantic comedy “The Big Sick”; Miguel Arteta’s culture-clash comedy “Beatriz at Dinner”; and “Bushwick,” an action thriller that envisions a multicultural civil war.

“We’re premiering it the day after Trump’s inauguration,” says Nate Bolotin of XYZ Films, which produced “Bushwick” and is co-repping sales with WME. “I feel like there’s a connective tie between them, and an opportunity to put a bigger spotlight on the movie.”

In what seems like a political lifetime ago, Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen teamed with Miramax to acquire the Obama biopic, “Southside With You,” after its 2016 Sundance premiere. “We felt there was a lot of nostalgia for his presidency and wanted to release it at the end of the summer, while people were saying goodbye to them,” says Cohen, who was pleased with its $6.3 million gross.

He sees potential for interest in political films that are well-received critically. “I think people are very conscious of not only what the best films are, but also, ‘What are we saying to the world by what movies we’re awarding? What do we believe in as an industry?’”

Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard used partnerships with the Girl Scouts and the YWCA to promote themes of female empowerment in his 2016 Sundance doc pickup “The Eagle Huntress,” which has earned $2.5 million and counting in theaters. But he notes the difference between the success of Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” (at $119 million, still the top-grossing doc of all time) and his more recent work (last year’s “Michael Moore in Trumpland” earned just $149,000 in theaters) as a cautionary tale.

“People aren’t going to see a movie just because it talks about hot-button issues,” Bernard says. “They’re going to see it because it tells a story, or says something unique with quality filmmaking. If you want politics, the movies are one of the last places you’re gonna get ’em. You’ve got Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, television, radio, newspapers. The American political landscape is so divided, I don’t think people are going to buy a movie that doesn’t agree with their positions. People have their own personal polarized media for their beliefs and points of view, and I don’t think this is the time or place where political movies are going to work.”

But as “loyal opposition” audiences for D’Souza’s films have proven, and the topsy-turvy political climate we’re now entering has shown, anything is possible. And these films are being helped along by such outfits as Participant Media, Impact Partners, Good Pitch (organized by U.K.-based Britdoc), and The Fledgling Fund, which connect filmmakers with financing and other orgs to expand the reach of their message.

Cinereach (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) produced and financed this year’s LGBTQ-themed entry, “Beach Rats,” and backed seven other Sundance films with grants, including the criminal justice studies “Strong Island,” “The Force,” and “Whose Streets?”

“I don’t think any of them will suddenly put an end to violence against people of color, but they’re going to contribute to the conversation around the overreach of policing,” says Cinereach co-founder Michael Raisler. “The more entertainment addresses the questions of our time, the more likely we are to see people use it as a bit of a cultural skateboard, moving them forward in how they see their world and move through it.”

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