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Sundance Preview: Expect Political Moments and Few Costly Deals at 2019 Festival

Zac Efron underwent a grueling physical transformation to play serial killer Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” a drama premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week. “I lost 13 pounds,” Efron says.

To prepare for the biographical role, he rode a stationary bike for an hour in the mornings while binge-watching the Netflix series “Ozark” and limited his meals.

“I wasn’t eating carbs. I trimmed down a lot and really controlled my diet.”

The market for independent movies is also watching its intake carefully. As the latest edition of Sundance kicks off on Jan. 24 with 112 films, the annual gathering in Park City, Utah, isn’t just where fans stand for hours in the freezing cold to see some great movies. The festival serves as an annual barometer of a rapidly changing film business that continues to evolve with scrappy new players and experimental distribution models.

In recent years, Sundance has adapted to the times. “Streaming” is no longer a taboo word, since Netflix has proved itself to be such a dominant force in entertainment, and major distributors including Disney and WarnerMedia are following suit with their own direct-to-consumer offerings.

Because the costly frenzy to snatch the hottest independent acquisition has burned so many buyers — just ask Fox Searchlight about 2017’s “Patti Cake$” or 2016’s “The Birth of a Nation” — there are fewer all-night bidding wars and blockbuster deals. Paul Davidson, exec VP of film and TV at The Orchard, estimates that the majority of prominent sales at Sundance this year will be in the modest $3 million to $7 million range.

“Last year was the first year in a while where there was less bidding up,” Davidson says. “Films were reasonably priced. There were just enough indie distributors and content for everybody to find a couple of things.” He predicts that for feature films, the trend will continue into 2019.

The business of independent film is in a moment of great unpredictability. Distributors such as A24 and Fox Searchlight have been turning to producing their own slates, so they can better control quality and costs. Amazon Studios, which relied on Sundance to nab such high-profile titles as “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Big Sick,” has curbed its buying on the festival front. CBS Films announced that it will be shuttering its theatrical film arm to focus on streaming. Global Road went out of business. And Harvey Weinstein, who used to rule Sundance, has been brought down by sexual harassment charges.

“Last year was the first year in a while where there was less bidding up. Films were reasonably priced.”
Paul Davidson, exec VP of film and TV, The Orchard

Even with all the changes afoot, Sundance 2018 was a launching pad for a surprising number of hits, including “Hereditary,” “Sorry to Bother You” and “Eighth Grade.” There were also big disappointments such as “Assassination Nation,” a violent thriller that flopped in theaters. Additionally, while box office was up last year, there weren’t many successful independent movies on the awards circuit, which reinforces the idea that ticket buyers are gravitating toward tentpoles (“Black Panther,” “Deadpool 2”) when splurging at the multiplex. Matthew Heineman, a respected Sundance documentary director, saw his first narrative film, “A Private War,” gross only $1.6 million at the domestic box office, despite strong reviews.

Another notable miss: Gus Van Sant’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, which bowed in Park City last January. “It’s a very challenging time,” says “Extremely Wicked” director Joe Berlinger. “But because of streaming and the golden age of television, it’s like the best of times and the worst of times. There’s never been a better opportunity to be a creator of content. But that may not mean in the theaters.” He pauses to clarify that his movie is seeking a theatrical release.

Many A-list celebrities at Sundance will also be holding out for the big screen. Some of the buzzier titles to hit the ground this year include Shia LaBeouf’s autobiographical “Honey Boy,” starring Lucas Hedges; the comedy “Late Night” with Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson; and “After the Wedding,” a remake of the Oscar-nominated Susanne Bier drama with the two originally male leads played by Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams. “By swapping the genders, it feels modern and timely,” says the film’s director, Bart Freundlich, who was last at Sundance two decades ago with “The Myth of Fingerprints.”

Artists at Sundance have never been reluctant to wade into politics. Two years ago, on the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, hundreds overtook Main Street for the Women’s March. This year, Planned Parenthood is hosting a panel to encourage filmmakers to more accurately depict characters that deal with their reproductive health. And the biggest star at Sundance may not hail from Hollywood. Newly elected New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be touching down in Utah to support “Knock Down the House,” a documentary that chronicles her and other female politicians’ campaigns.

Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore take on the roles played by the male leads in the remake of Susanne Bier’s “After the Wedding.”
Julio Macat

On the nonfiction front, there are higher expectations overall. The bidding for documentaries could be more competitive as a result of the success of recent movies about Fred Rogers (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“RBG”) that overperformed at the box office in the Trump era. And since documentaries are cheaper to distribute, they aren’t as much of a gamble for distributors, which could drive prices up even further.

Director Drake Doremus, who produced “Love, Antosha,” about the late actor Anton Yelchin, says there’s never been a better time for the genre. “We’re super excited about the world’s appetite for documentaries,” he says. His film incorporates never-before-seen footage provided by Yelchin’s parents alongside interviews with J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana and others.

One title sure to make some news is “Lorena,” a biographical miniseries from Amazon. The show’s director, Joshua Rofé, wanted to look back on Lorena Bobbitt through the lens of #MeToo, as a victim of abuse rather than a tabloid headline about a woman who cut off her husband’s penis.

Bobbitt explains why she allowed the cameras back into her life. “Basically, I just had to say, ‘Look, I owe this to myself,’” she tells Variety. “And to me, the most important thing was to address the epidemic of domestic violence to actually educate people. This is a serious issue. We are actually changing the life of someone who is a victim or victimized.”

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