The famous independent movie festival has become an unofficial pipeline to superhero movies
The Sundance Film Festival is celebrated as America’s premiere showcase for independent film and a launchpad for up-and-coming filmmakers making deeply personal movies, often on shoestring budgets. But the storied festival is also becoming known for something else: a pipeline for talent into some of Marvel’s biggest superhero films.
From Chloe Zhao (“Eternals”) to Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”), Disney’s Marvel Studios has tapped Sundance talent with notable regularity.
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A top dealmaker gave a brutally honest reason for what has become a pattern:
“It’s because they’re young, cheap, and will follow Feige’s rules,” the dealmaker said, referring to Marvel Studios president and keeper of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Kevin Feige.
How the annual Park City, Utah gathering has evolved into minor league farm system for Marvel is a phenomenon that tracks with the MCU’s ambitious slate, which constantly demands new ideas and talent. If Marvel exists to create fantasy worlds where characters put on power armor and save (or destroy) the world, the studio is also looking for edginess honed in indie film. Sundance has become the “Comic Con for the indie cinema scene,” a high-ranking theatrical studio executive told TheWrap.
A half dozen filmmakers have joined the MCU ranks following their Sundance breakouts.
“Black Panther” filmmaker Ryan Coogler broke out at Sundance with “Fruitvale Station,” which starred future Killmonger actor Michael B. Jordan. Coogler would go on to launch the massive “Black Panther” franchise which garnered a Best Picture nomination for the first film, and most recently an MCU first Best Supporting Actress nomination for “Wakanda Forever” star Angela Basset.
While 2014’s “What We Do in the Shadows” put director Taika Waititi on Marvel’s radar, he was hired to direct “Thor: Ragnarok” a few months before his 2016 indie “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” premiered at Sundance, and the response to the film only boosted excitement for the “Thor” sequel.
Filmmaker Jon Watts’ “Cop Car” debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival before he was hired to reboot the “Spider-Man” franchise. He would go on to direct two sequels to immense success and introduce the world to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker.
Filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck debuted “Mississippi Grind” at Sundance 2015 before landing the “Captain Marvel” assignment. The female superhero movie starring Brie Larson grossed over $1.1 billion worldwide in 2019, making it the first female-led superhero film to pass the billion-dollar mark.
Cate Shortland went to Sundance 2017 with her third film, the psychological horror thriller “Berlin Syndrome,” before she took the “Black Widow” job the following year in 2018.
And although Chloe Zhao broke out at Sundance 2015 with her debut feature “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” it wasn’t until after her second film, 2017’s “The Rider,” that she booked Marvel’s “Eternals” in September 2018.
Jonathan Majors, whose Kang the Conqueror is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s next Big Bad after Thanos isn’t a filmmaker, but his ability to star in a Marvel production and do a Sundance indie is an interesting dichotomy. He was at Sundance last month to promote his indie “Magazine Dreams” which centers on Killian Maddox, a lonely, emotionally troubled young man who develops an obsession with bodybuilding. Premiering to a somewhat divisive response at the festival (although most agreed Majors’ performance was impressive), the film is both an individual character study and a portrait of the American Dream in all its flawed glory.
Does Marvel Studios actually send scouts to the festival to eye talent? Not really, because according to an insider with knowledge, the company has all the internal producers constantly looking for talent regardless. “Studios are still seeing the movies, but the prevailing conversation is ‘This actor or director is worth looking at for one of our movies or franchise titles,'” the theatrical executive said.
The dealmaker added: “High-level directors who are hot don’t work for Marvel Studios. It’s only up-and-comers and veterans who are cold.”
While it’s true that Marvel’s recent hires have been more opportunistic in nature (up-and-comers like Watts, Shortland, and “The Marvels” director Nia DaCosta; “cold” veterans like “Doctor Strange 2’s” Sam Raimi, who hadn’t directed a feature in a decade), other “hot” filmmakers like Coogler, “Fantastic Four’s” Matt Shakman (who left a “Star Trek” film to direct the Marvel reboot), and upcoming “Deadpool 3” filmmaker Shawn Levy don’t quite fit that description.
One top manager told TheWrap that “in order to keep the franchises alive longer you need to inject the voices into it that will help revitalize and refresh the IP. Festivals like Sundance curate distinctive variety, and these newer filmmakers are keener to lend that to these studios.”
“Marvel Studios gives early career directors their first opportunity to make tentpole movies with budgets over $100 million dollars,” the insider added. “After directing blockbuster hits for Marvel, directors go on to other high-profile projects at other studios. Filmmakers are often complimentary and surprised by the creative freedom and flexibility they have working with Marvel Studios, and in the case of directors like Watts, Coogler and Waititi, all returned to direct for Marvel again.”
Of course, Sundance serving as the breakout for major talent is nothing new — filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino, to Steven Soderbergh, to Damien Chazelle all got their start with buzz in Park City — but the notion that the most consistent blockbuster hit-maker in town is looking to Sundance for its roster of talent speaks to the state of the industry today.
Scott Mendelson contributed to this report.
Umberto has been covering the fanboy beat & breaking scoops for 20 years with numerous Hollywood trade, newspaper, & magazine mentions to his credit. Umberto has been profiled in such publications as The Washington Post, Variety and Grantland.