Sundance 2016 Preview: Gun Violence, TV Party-Crashers and Young Obamas in Love

You also won’t be able to throw a snowball without hitting a celebrity documentary or avoiding talk about Netflix

Sundance 2016

When it comes to capturing the zeitgeist, there’s no greater festival than Sundance, which may explains why the festival arrives armed with plenty of firepower this year — literally.

Sundance has its finger on the pulse (or the trigger) of America with a handful of movies that examine gun violence, a hot-button topic topic. Katie Couric returns to Park City with her “Fed Up” collaborator Stephanie Soechtig for “Under the Gun,” a documentary that explores both side of the gun control debate. The film will feature never-before-seen footage of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which also happens to be the subject of Tim Sutton’s narrative feature “Dark Night.”

Aurora isn’t the only national tragedy under the lens at Sundance, as Kim Snyder’s documentary “Newtown” looks at the Connecticut community that came together in the wake of a school shooting that left 27 innocent people dead.

The firearms frenzy isn’t restricted to feature-length films either, as AJ Schnack’s short documentary “Speaking Is Difficult” will also tackle the subject of gun violence.

Here are some other trends to look out for in Park City:

Girlfriend Experience
“The Girlfriend Experience”

The TV Takeover

Small-screen projects seem to be stealing the spotlight from many independent films over the next 10 days. There will be screenings for Steven Soderbergh‘s Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience,” Hulu’s “11/22/63” with James Franco, Amazon’s “The New Yorker Presents” and Netflix’s “Chelsea Does” starring Chelsea Handler, plus the female-driven web series “The Skinny” from Jessie Kahnweiler.

All of those titles hail from alternatives to the traditional broadcast networks, but how many potentially great indie movies will go unseen in favor of TV shows with guaranteed distribution? It’s a tricky conundrum, but television isn’t the only thing challenging the status quo at Sundance.

Fundamentals of Caring
“The Fundamentals of Caring”

The Digital Disrupter

The big story prior to the festival has been how aggressive Netflix has been in acquiring movies. The streaming service shelled out $7 million for worldwide SVOD rights to “The Fundamentals of Caring” and $5 million for “Talulah,” both of which feature established stars in Paul Rudd and Ellen Page.

Those two deals do not include theatrical rights, though larger indie distributors with output deals are unlikely to pursue those titles, given that there’s one less revenue stream to exploit. Netflix seems to enjoy its role as a digital disrupter and will likely continue to make non-traditional Sundance acquisitions.

“The marketplace is crowded and can be complicated. With Netflix, you get the same promotional push and they make it feel like a film is as big as it should be. Even if it doesn’t do box office, it can change how will it be perceived,” one veteran sales agent said.

“Deals are still driven by Netflix’s agenda rather than a traditional theatrical play, but now we’re more realistic about what that means,” the agent said. “A Netflix deal will be a win for a particular kind of film, because they really do put their money where their mouths are.”

Yoga Hosers
“Yoga Hosers”

The Sales

Several films enter Sundance with domestic distribution already in place, such as the Weinstein Company’s “Sing Street” and Bleecker Street’s “Captain Fantastic.”

Both those companies will likely be active on the sales front in Park City, though TWC remains a question mark. The company sat out last year’s festival and has allowed its Radius label to steal the Sundance spotlight in recent years, preferring to make its splashiest deals, like the ones for Matthew McConaughey‘s “Gold” and Michael Keaton‘s “The Founder,” outside of festivals.

That said, with Tom Quinn and Jason Janego departing Radius to start their own label with Drafthouse Films CEO Tim League, it’s possible that Harvey could go all-out for the right title. After all, it’s a lot cheaper to acquire a hit Sundance film than finance a three-hour, 70mm Tarantino movie.

Speaking of Quinn and Janego, insiders are torn over how active the former Radius execs will be with their new company. Some say they have their capital in place and are ready to wheel-and-deal, while others suggest the company is still getting its ducks in a row.

After doing a solid job with Kevin Smith‘s “Tusk,” it’s possible A24 could have the inside track on the director’s follow-up “Yoga Hosers,” which sees Johnny Depp return alongside his daughter, Lily-Rose Depp, and Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn.

While STX Entertainment and Open Road Films will also be on the prowl again this year, one company that has seen its stock rise since last year’s festival is Broad Green Pictures.

Sundance founder Robert Redford and the filmmakers behind “A Walk in the Woods” took a risk last year with the nascent distributor, and when Broad Green decided to release the film wide, it wound up grossing $30 million, becoming one of last year’s biggest indie success stories.

“They’re beefing up and have really proved themselves,” said one veteran sales agent. “Buyers are maturing and there’s more of them every time we turn around, but there’s a little bit more clarity about what each one does now.”

One buyer that will not be attending Sundance this year is Relativity, which is not expected to have a major presence at the festival as it continues to emerge from bankruptcy. While some theorized that Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti would look to reinvigorate the company with a strategic Sundance acquisition, Relativity’s distribution pipeline is already backed up and sellers remain wary. A splashy statement buy out of Toronto once the company is back on its feet is more likely.

Southside With You
“Southside With You”

Obama at the Oscars?

Each year at Sundance, acquisitions executives seek out the diamonds in the rough, the indie gems that can break out and become commercial and critical hits. Over the past decade, nine Best Picture nominees have launched in Park City, including “Brooklyn,” “Boyhood,” “Whiplash,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Winter’s Bone,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Precious,” “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

But every “best” list needs a 10th member, and it’s anyone’s guess as to which film will emerge from this year’s festival with the most awards buzz.

“Sundance can absolutely play a role in the initial genesis of things. There’s usually a movie or two each year whose initial drop in the ocean creates a ripple for 12 months,” one veteran sales agent told TheWrap.

This year, that movie could very well be Nate Parker’s feature directorial debut “Birth of a Nation,” which has buyers particularly excited.

Another title generating buzz is Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You,” a feature chronicling the romance between a young Barack Obama and future First Lady Michelle Robinson.

Those who have seen “Southside” say “its simplicity is powerful” and that the film depoliticizes and humanizes the Obamas, connecting us to their private relationship in a way that has the power to change how we see them in their current power roles.

Sundance has also given prime screening slots on Friday and Saturday to “Goat,” which boasts producer James Franco and co-writer David Gordon Green, as well as Antonio Campos’ “Christine,” starring Rebecca Hall as suicidal reporter Christine Chubbuck — the subject of a second Sundance movie, “Kate Plays Christine.”

“Christine” is expected to be Campos’ most accessible film to date, as one dealmaker told TheWrap that “it feels like there’s been a maturation process in his storytelling and filmmaking.”

Meanwhile, no less than Quentin Tarantino is rumored to have served as the adviser to “Swiss Army Man” filmmakers Dan Kwan and Dan Scheinert at the Sundance Screenwriting Lab. Up to this point, the directing duo is best known for their music videos, including DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s hit song “Turn Down for What.” The film was produced by Miranda Bailey, who returns to Sundance after hitting a home run last year with a Sony Pictures Classics deal for “Diary of a Teenage Girl.”

Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall
“Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall”

Dynamic Documentaries

While Sundance has birthed no shortage of wonderful narrative features, the festival may be even better at programming its documentary lineup. This year’s time-demanding experience is ESPN’s 7.5-hour special presentation of “O.J.: Made in America,” which will be shown in two parts on Friday afternoon at the Egyptian. That’s a major time commitment at any film festival, but the timing is fortuitous as FX prepares to debut its own 10-part O.J. Simpson miniseries.

Not to be outdone, HBO rides into Sundance with “Becoming Mike Nichols,” “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” and “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper.”

Those aren’t the only famous documentary subjects, as buyers will also be taking a close look at films about Michael Jackson (from Spike Lee), Maya Angelou, Norman Lear, Richard Linklater and Frank Zappa.

Sundance Selects just bought the Anthony Weiner documentary “Weiner,” which is already being talked about in political circles. Meanwhile, “Gleason” is said to be a powerful, emotional look at NFL vet Steve Gleason, who suffers from ALS. Insiders tell TheWrap that Gleason will attend the festival and that Microsoft and GoPro will be lending their marketing support to the movie.

NEXT is Now

This year’s NEXT lineup is one of the most exciting in the history of the program. When TheWrap saw Andre Hyland’s short film “Funnel,” presented by comedy icon Bob Odenkirk at the 2014 festival, we knew he’d be a director to keep an eye on.

Sure enough, Hyland returns this year with “The 4th,” a shaggy yet hilarious day-in-the-life story of a guy trying in vain to prepare for a 4th of July BBQ, featuring the multi-hyphenate’s unique comic sensibility.

Also worth adding to your festival schedule are “The Eyes of My Mother” from Borderline Films, which is described “as a very visual and striking genre piece,” as well as Matt Johnson’s “Operation Avalanche,” for which the filmmaker basically sneaked into NASA.

Odds and Ends

The short film program is often an embarrassment of riches, but if you like your shorts with a shocking punchline, be sure to check out Andrew Laurich’s “A Reasonable Request.”

Elsewhere, the raunchy Indian comedy “Brahman Naman” should stand out in the World Dramatic competition, while across town at Slamdance, “Honey Buddies” and opening night film “Director’s Cut” fly into Utah with early buzz.