Sundance: How Will Festival Tackle #MeToo, Political Turmoil, and More?

June Pictures CEO Alex Saks was having an amazing 2017. Her first three productions sold to Focus, Netflix and eOne after their Park City premieres; A24 picked up her Oscar contender “The Florida Project” in Cannes; and her latest sales title, “Wildlife,” was selected for the U.S. Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

But just a month ago, after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against chairman Andrew Duncan, Saks took sole operating control of June and arrived at terms to buy out his stake.

“Unfortunately, when allegations like that exist, the place that we built is no longer a home,” Saks says. “It’s tarnished, so [taking over] felt like the necessary thing to do to protect these amazing pieces of work.” Though Duncan denied the accusations in a Dec. 15 statement, Saks says he “has very graciously chosen to take [his producer credit] off ‘Wildlife’ to give us the best opportunity for success” in Park City.

Following 2016 protests over a lack of industry diversity and a rollercoaster political year, this incident is just one of the latest that could turn Sundance into the first fest where post-traumatic stress disorder is the unofficial theme. Within a few days of that news, Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me 2” was pulled from the lineup and his Warrior Poets production shingle was dropped from the Special Events entry docuseries “The Trade” after he confessed to sexual misconduct on Twitter.

June Pictures’ “Wildlife,” directed by Paul Dano, will premiere in competition at Sundance.

“It never ends,” says one top distribution exec, citing aborted Toronto sales of Spurlock’s film and Louis C.K.’s “I Love You, Daddy.” “Everyone is wondering who’ll be the next person to be accused, and if it will derail another project.”

And regardless of founder Robert Redford’s claim last January that Sundance execs “stay away from politics [and] don’t play advocacy,” both will be unavoidable on and off the screen this year.

“Our movie is about a female artist who is driven crazy by the culture that she lives in,” says Maggie Gyllenhaal, producer-star of the U.S. Dramatic Competition entry “The Kindergarten Teacher.” “It was not by design, but I think — especially at this moment — it’s a story that speaks to women.”

Most of the organizers behind last year’s Women’s March on Main are staging a Respect Rally at 10 a.m. Jan. 20 near the Library. Women in Film is hosting panels with female producers and helmers at the Café Artois; Charles King’s Macro production shingle is launching the Macro Lodge with Q&As and networking events covering diversity issues; and fest director John Cooper predicts talk will be generated by Ava DuVernay and more at the Jan. 19 Power of Story: Culture Shift panel “about issues of power, mainly between genders.”

“Some of the actions around Time’s Up are still being kept secret,” supporter Gyllenhaal says of the $16 million industry harassment, assault and workplace inequality legal defense fund that was omnipresent at the Golden Globes and is expected at Park City panels. “It’s good to include this movement at Sundance.”

You can expect her and other filmmakers at Park City political talks and events. “I am a feminist who supports due process,” she says. “I also recognize that due process has not supported many, many women who were abused and harassed. There’s a totally justifiable anger that’s reverberating loudly right now, and I think we have to include that in everything that we do and, at the same time, challenge ourselves to think as clearly as we can through that anger.”

“Unfortunately, when allegations like that exist, the place we built is no longer a home.”
Alex Saks, CEO June Pictures

Much of the lineup presented by Cooper and programming director Trevor Groth promises to be just as provocative. It’s typically taken two years for current events to be reflected onscreen, Cooper says, and “two themes we’ve noticed are powerful women and the African-American male experience.” The latter appears in five of the 16 U.S. Dramatic Competition entries: the politically charged interracial buddy comedy “Blindspotting” (“so smart and creative — the film that’s going to play,” Groth says); the police misconduct drama “Monsters and Men”; the wrongful imprisonment drama “Monster”; the racial fish-out-of-water tale “Tyrel” (“the one that could incite the most dialogue,” Cooper predicts), and the telemarketing comedy “Sorry to Bother You.”

Events from the past year also resonate in the lineup. Though Sebastián Silva’s semi-autobiographical “Tyrel” seems to have a “Get Out”-inspired premise (in which the lead finds himself as the sole person of color at a weekend party), exec producer/co-star Max Born says, “there are definitely some post-election frustrations present” in micro-aggressions found in the partly-improvised dialogue, shot just a few weeks after last year’s inauguration.

The industry’s diversity push has a champion in Charles King, whose Macro shingle produced “Sorry to Bother You” and last year’s biggest deal, the $12.5 million “Mudbound” sale to Netflix. “I was part of the Women’s March on Main the day after the inauguration, and you could feel the power and energy from people who are not going to sit back when there’s a movement for people to create change and be proactive, rather than to be viewed as victims,” says King, a Sundance Institute board member.

Macro’s branding and special projects exec, Stacey King, inspired by the longstanding work of groups such as the Blackhouse Foundation, is overseeing the new Macro Lodge. “What I’m finding from everyone I’m talking to is that people are realizing their art is a form of activism that’s more important now than ever before,” she says. “I’m expecting the energy to be higher than ever because there’s a sense of urgency that we haven’t seen before.”

A few films’ path to the screen has been accelerated for personal reasons. ToniK Productions’ Tonya Lewis Lee and Nikki Silver had the rights to the YA novel “Monster” for more than a decade when Bron Studios’ Aaron L. Gilbert joined them to produce and co-finance. “I was drawn to this movie because at the time I had a 15-year-old, and my son is of color,” Gilbert says. “You realize how easily [wrongful imprisonment] could happen to any person of color.”

Sundance entry “The Tale” is one of several festival films that could resonate in the #MeToo climate.

Other projects which predated the #MeToo movement are sure to fuel discussion about it. Writer-director Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical U.S. Dramatic Competition entry “The Tale” follows a woman (Laura Dern) forced to confront a sexual relationship she had at age 13 with two adult coaches.

“I talked to Jennifer Fox and other filmmakers about how their [films’ releases are] just coinciding with America taking a different kind of look at itself,” Cooper says. “They feel energized by it. They don’t feel they’re stepping into an abyss of [audiences with] no knowledge about these subjects, and their personal stories are enhancing the national dialogue.”

Similarly, the Gloria Allred profile “Seeing Allred” in the U.S. Documentary Competition and the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chronicle “RBG” in Doc Premieres “have a different kind of importance this year,” he adds.

Cooper feels the World Cinema Documentary Competition entry “Our New President,” about Russia’s coverage of Trump’s election, and the violent, over-the-top Midnight entry “Assassination Nation” are “embracing American dysfunction.”

Producer Kevin Turen says writer-director Sam Levinson’s satirical “Nation” is “very much influenced by the Salem Witch Trials. It deals with racism, lives being run from the internet, jumping to conclusions without knowing. In the film some people’s lives are ruined justifiably and some in a gray area, and [it tackles] how the internet is this uncontrollable beast.” Shot many months before sexual harassment allegations exploded and people lost jobs over stories in the media, does this film apply? “Sam was almost prophetic; it’s pretty crazy,” Turen says. “It feels like it’s almost a reaction to everything.”

It’s not lost on Sundance execs that the floodgates of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein were spearheaded by Rose McGowan, whose reported $100,000 settlement with the fallen titan happened after an alleged 1997 Park City attack she’s expected to describe for the first time in her memoir “Brave,” out Jan. 30.

“We have a code of conduct, and we’ve stepped up with some systems with the Park City police department and security at hotels in place if anything happens at the festival,” Cooper says. “We’re also [creating] a place where people can go to get help if they need it during the festival. There’s a fine[r] eye on security at our events now.” (People can report code-of-conduct violations at a new fest hotline: 801-834-1944.)

“I am a feminist who supports due process. I also recognize that due process has not supported many, many women who were abused and harassed.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal

How all of these events will affect the health of the marketplace — already slowed in recent years by more pre- and post-fest buys — is obviously a far less important issue, but one nonetheless on some festgoers’ minds. Few buyers forget that Oscar hopes for Fox Searchlight’s record $17.5 million pickup of “The Birth of a Nation” were derailed after news of director Nate Parker’s trial in a rape case resurfaced, even though he had been acquitted. How will things change with new reports of alleged abuse arriving almost daily, and with the search engine Rotten Apples (therottenappl.es) singling out allegations against filmmakers on any project?

UTA Independent Film Group head Rena Ronson and agent Nick Shumaker (whose slate includes “Tyrel,” “Our New President” and the gay conversion therapy drama “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”) say that no buyers have raised concerns about talent in their Sundance conversations. Recent issues with film sales affected by accusations “didn’t stop the business,” Ronson adds. “It may make people pause, but you can’t only anticipate the worst.”

One top indie film buyer says “we’re certainly proceeding with more caution,” echoing two others who also declined to speak on the record. “I get the sense [buyers] are vetting [filmmakers] now, even if they haven’t seen the films,” Cooper says.

Sundance execs hope that shows in the new Indie Episodic section will give the fest’s unofficial market a boost that can override any concerns.

Fortunately for exec producer-showrunner Pagan Harleman, Showtime greenlit her stunning addiction and drug war docuseries “The Trade” and set its Feb. 2 TV bow well before Spurlock and his Warrior Poets shingle were dropped from it. “This project took a lot out of me and everybody for the past year-and-a-half,” she says. “We were already pretty taxed, and then we had this added stress, so it’s been hard. But everybody at the festival and Showtime reached out and said, ‘How can we support you?’… What would be the biggest loss from what happened at Warrior Poets is if people didn’t see the work, because it’s important and meaningful. That’s what I want people to be talking about.”

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