5 Takeaways From the Sundance Film Festival: From Frozen Indie Markets to Next Year’s Awards Contenders

Cha Cha Real Smooth Nanny Good Luck to You Leo Grande
Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Cornerstone

The Sundance Film Festival closed its second virtual edition on Sunday, having fielded a few breakout new films and filmmakers, as well as some big sales.

With the indie film box office in the doldrums, many of the most aggressive buyers were streaming giants, which have both an insatiable need for content and a desire to generate some awards buzz. While some of the movies received a more muted reception than in past years, when a standing ovation at Park City’s Eccles Theater was enough to trigger an all-night bidding war, there’s been no shortage of headline-making moments. Plus, a slow-burning sales market caught fire as Sundance came to a close, leaving some indie filmmakers the richer for their festival experience. Here are some key takeaways:

Peak Pandemic Politics

America has never felt more divided, and many of the films premiering at this year’s Sundance shine a light on that political chasm. From abortion rights (“Call Jane”) and corporate greed (“Downfall: The Case Against Boeing”) to campus racism (“Master”) and income inequality (“The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales), both the narrative features and the non-fiction work on display spoke speak truth to power and  highlighted a group of filmmakers who are determined to use their art to expose what they see as the country’s moral failings.

Get Ready to Fall in Love With Cooper Raiff

The 24 year-old multi-hyphenate behind “Cha Cha Real Smooth” scored the festival’s biggest deal, a $15 million dollar pact from Apple. The film, which Raiff directed, wrote, produced, edited and starred in is a heartfelt, frequently hilarious story of a recent college grad who forms a bond with a single mother and her autistic daughter. Its charms are almost impossible to resist and studios will be lining up to work with the winning Raiff in the future. But Sundance success has its perils and can put a target on an up-and-comer’s back. After all, lots of movies like “Brittany Runs a Marathon” and “Blinded by the Light” have scored with festival-goers, only to falter with the general public.

Hollywood Opened Its Wallet (Eventually)

Gone were the all-night bidding wars that make Sundance so exhausting and exhilarating for sales agents, filmmakers and the trade press. In fact, things were downright glacial through the festival’s first weekend with only a handful of documentaries selling. But then things started to sizzle. Not only did Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth” score a $15 million pact, but “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” sold to Hulu and Searchlight for $7.5 million, “Am I Ok?” went to HBO Max and Warner Bros. for nearly $7 million (a second high-profile sale for Erik Feig’s Picturestart) and “Living” sold to Sony Pictures Classics for roughly $5 million. Those are very respectable numbers even in normal years. But some high-profile films stumbled out of the gate, most notably Lena Dunham’s “Sharp Stick,” which was maimed by critics, and have yet to secure distribution. It’s notable, however, that most of the major sales had some sort of streaming component. With the box office for adult-oriented movies on life support, most studios are wary of overpaying for movies could struggle to draw crowds as pandemic uncertainty continues.

Buzz Building Proves Difficult

Speaking of so-called “festival fever,” the second consecutive virtual Sundance seems to reveal something crucial about the DNA of these events – — that talent and industry types need to trek up the mountain to call attention to their work. Celebrities rocking cable-knit sweaters and beanies for daily photo ops go a long way in toward creating awareness around the art form, as do long standing ovations in crowded theaters and interviews in glossy media studios. While many have marveled at the ease of an on-demand video library showcasing these movies, the lack of dialogue and press coverage around the lineup does not bode well for the health of Sundance or the filmmakers. More than a few Hollywood powerbrokers have been discussing a come-to-Jesus with the festival, urging it to permanently move farther away from the holiday season.

Oscar Futures Uncertain

While not as well-positioned in the film awards cycle as the Cannes and Toronto festivals, Sundance is almost always good for an awards player or two. Thanks to the protracted, pandemic-jammed Oscar season currently playing out — and the previously mentioned tepid market — it’s unclear what films might be primed to break out as next year’s contenders.

“Nanny,” the narrative grand jury prize winner with an electric lead turn by Anna Diop and backed by a fabulous supporting cast in Sinqua Walls, Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector, could well bait bodies like the Gotham Awards and the Indie Spirits. The problem? It hasn’t found a buyer yet. Likewise, Dunham’s “Sharp Stick” remains unsold and was ravaged by critics, but one should never count her out as a director with a singular perspective.

After acquiring “Leo Grande” for a streaming release at Hulu, the team at Searchlight will likely attempt some recognition for Thompson — whose many on-screen gifts are at play in the sex worker drama, including a poignant full-frontal nude scene which will surely inspire conversations about self-acceptance and pleasure at every age. After cutting a $15 million check, Apple Studios could be eager to get Raiff’s “Cha Cha” in front of voters and guilds. The prestige label Sony Pictures Classics is also sure to trot out “Living,” the well-received remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic meaning-of-life story “Ikiru,” led by Bill Nighy.