Diversity at Sundance 2015 Leads Buzzy Films, Acquisitions

Many of this year’s early standouts have come from strong female and minority voices

Last Updated: January 26, 2015 @ 7:35 AM

As the first weekend of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival closed with a concert featuring the music of Nina Simone and a Main Street toga party to celebrate the National Lampoon documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” it’s safe to say that the buzzword diversity fits this year’s festival in more ways than one.

The festival’s hefty contingent of female and minority filmmakers has allowed Sundance to take a victory lap at the same time that the Motion Picture Academy has been reeling from the lack of diversity in its Oscar nominations.

See photos: Sundance 2015 Scene and Heard: Iggy Azalea, Keanu Reeves, Hailee Steinfeld, Diplo, Adam Scott (Photos)

“Diversity is basically a description of independence, ” said festival cofounder Robert Redford in an exclusive interview with TheWrap. “Diversity is what moves the ball for me, and I thought, ‘Give people a chance that have different points of view. Let the audience decide whether they like it or not. But give those voices a chance to be seen and heard.’”

Diversity “is an active choice,” said “Selma” director and Sundance board member Ava DuVernay, in an exclusive interview with TheWrap, noting that Sundance has taken active measures in the past decade to reflect a greater range of voices.  “There needs to be diversity. It’s still a process [at Sundance] but they’re working on it.”

Meanwhile, one of the hottest titles thus far has been Rick Famuyima’s “Dope,” about a geeky African-American teen trying to negotiate the path from a gang-infested Inglewood neighborhood to Harvard. The film sold on Sunday for $7 million to Open Road and Sony after a bidding war with seven different distributors vying for the urban comedy.

Meanwhile, strong female voices have come from directors Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), Jennifer Phang (“Advantageous”), Nikole Beckwith (“Stockholm, Pennsylvania”), Anne Sewitsky (“Homesick”), Kim Farrant (“Strangerland”) and many others.

But beyond that, Sundance ’15 has had a broad range of business and creative success stories in its first four days. No film has leapt out and seemed destined for Oscar glory the way “Whiplash” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild” have done in recent years, and but acquisitions have been steady since before the festival began, including Jack Black‘s “The D Train,” Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” and the off-beat comedy, “The Bronze.”

And as the weekend closed, word spread that Fox Searchlight had picked up Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” for an eight-figure payday that would place it near “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Way, Way Back” as one of Sundance’s priciest acquisitions ever.

Breakout Sundance talent has included “Me and Earl” star Thomas Mann; Bel Powley, the young British actress starring in “Diary of a Teenage Girl”; Shameik Moore, with a star-making performance in “Dope”; writer-actress Melissa Rauch for the hilariously profane “The Bronze”; and Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, first time directors who helped Jack Black and James Marsden redefine bromance in “The D Train.”

Also read: Sundance: Open Road, Sony Get Rick Famuyiwa’s ‘Dope’ for $7 Million

The festival has also recognized the way the line between independent film and quality television has been all but erased. The Duplass brothers brought episodes of their new TV series “Animals,” Robert Redford admitted in his opening press conference that television is advancing faster than film, and Lena Dunham made headlines by calling Woody Allen a “perv” on a panel with a group of female showrunners.

Across the first four days of this diverse Sundance, it’s safe to say that comedies and documentaries have stolen a lot of the spotlight, with Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America” also scoring in the former category.

The documentaries, always one of the real strengths of Sundance, have included Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s “Best of Enemies,” Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land,” Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’ “Hot Girls Wanted,” Louie Psihoyos’ “Racing Extinction” and Kirby Dick’s “The Hunting Ground.”

And while a few films have been panned, even Redford’s “A Walk in the Woods,” which the Sundance founder insisted was not his idea to bring to the festival, got a few admiring notices to go with its largely lukewarm response. (The film is about two old guys hiking through the woods, and a running dismissal has been comparing it to the current Reese Witherspoon hiking movie: “It’s not ‘Wild,’ it’s ‘Mild.’”)

Also read: Sundance Reviews: Literary Lions, Troubled Teens, Lithuanian Lesbians

It doesn’t feel like a landmark Sundance at this point, and of course Park City is too crowded, traffic is tangled, lines are long, not all the movies are great and lots of people are here for celebrating instead of cinema.

But it’s Sundance, where that has gone with the territory for years. At TheWrap’s video studio on Sunday, this year’s festival may have been summed up most aptly by Ewan MacGregor, who was returning with “Last Days in the Desert” to the festival he visited with the first film he ever made, 1994’s “Shallow Grave.”

“They didn’t used to have all these lounges, where you’d go and they’d give you free s— you don’t need,” he said. “But it’s still a festival that cares about great filmmaking.”