Sundance So Far: The Delayed-Gratification Festival Faces Major Challenges for Film

Sundance Film Festival 2023: At the first in-person Sundance in three years, the initial glee has turned to cautious optimism

Cat Person Magazine Dreams Eileen
Sundance films, "Cat Person," "Magazine Dreams" and "Eileen"

When the 2023 Sundance began on Thursday evening, there was a giddiness in the air after two years of virtual festivals. For filmmakers and audiences, it was thrilling just to be back in crowded theaters to watch movies and bask in the Sundance buzz that, let’s face it, makes a lot of indie films look better at 6,900 feet than they will at sea level.  

Sustaining the giddiness is, of course, more difficult than getting there in the first place. So as the delayed-gratification Sundance’s opening weekend nears its conclusion, it’s hard not to acknowledge that the initial rejoicing also required ignoring the fact that the movie business itself has been rocked, with theaters closing and box-office numbers still far from pre-covid numbers. And, oh yes, covid is still with us.

“It is a tough time. I don’t know where these small films go,” said Bob Berney, a veteran of the independent movie industry, a former head of Picturehouse and Amazon Studios marketing. “Whoever financed these pictures – there won’t be a lot there” in financial return.

So let’s just say that as Sundance goes on, there are a couple of different kinds of caution mixed with that glee – not that the caution has significantly increased the percentage of the audience that masks up at screenings or on crowded transit buses.  

The films that have stirred up the most attention include “Magazine Dreams,” with its powerhouse performance by Jonathan Majors as a socially awkward body-builder; “Fair Play,” a modern twist on the erotic thriller; and Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings,” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies as a long-married couple grappling with how honest to really be in a loving relationship.

But Sundance has always been a launching pad for theatrical indies, and the current climate simply doesn’t offer much hope that one of these movies could be the next breakout like “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” These are perilous times for the kind of cinema that thrives in Park City, and for the Sundance model of showing movies in the festival’s theaters to attract buyers and build excitement as they make their way to other theaters.

But even a movie business that seems to have increasingly little demand for indies is not going to stop Sundance deals from being made, since streamers have been among the top bidders at this and other festivals for the past couple of years. As of Sunday night, deals seemed to be imminent on a number of films, including “Fair Play,” “Theater Camp” and “Eileen.” You could say there’s a cautious optimism on the sales side, though that optimism seems to be coming from projected deals from the streaming side of Hollywood rather than the theatrical one. 

And while the first few days had their share of crowd-pleasing films, from the mockumentary “Theater Camp” to the provocative neo-noir “Eileen” to John Carney’s charming romantic musical “Flora and Son,” this has also been a predominantly serious Sundance slate that seems geared more toward exploring thorny issues than attracting reluctant moviegoers.

Even the music-related documentaries, the most reliably uplifting films at many festivals, have more than good tunes on their minds: “Little Richard: I Am Everything” deals with the lack of respect given to a queer Black pioneer, the Indigo Girls’ doc “It’s Only Life After All” with LGBTQ issues in popular culture and the Texas-set “Going Varsity in Mariachi” deals with issues of class and legacy.

Like many festivals in this era, Sundance was clearly programmed with the idea of spotlighting underrepresented communities and filmmakers. Of the nine films that screened on opening night, six were directed by women, two by men and one by a male-female team; the 15 scheduled through Sunday at the Eccles Theater, Sundance’s biggest showcase venue, were evenly divided between men and women, many of them from filmmakers of color. 

This is also an in-person festival with sizeable virtual component, with more Sundance films than usual becoming available on the festival platform particularly as next week goes on. But for now, the action seems to be on the ground, where the agencies have come out in force.

Sundance also dropped a surprise movie detailing new allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, “Justice”; detailed the exploitation of a young actress in “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields”; dropped the audience inside the Russian invasion of Ukraine in “20 Days in Mariupol”; used fiction to deal with indigenous issues in “Fancy Dance” and with sexuality in “Cassandro” among many others; and presented affecting women’s stories in “Fremont,” “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” and many others.

Meanwhile, there’s another trend at this year’s Sundance that relates to the last two years of virtual festivals. Several of the filmmakers and stars who didn’t get their moments in the snow are back this year to have the in-person Sundance experience. Some are part of Encore Special Screenings section, which invited back the Oscar winners “CODA” and “Summer of Soul” along with “Klondike” and “Navalny.” But other directors whose films didn’t get in-person experience are also in town, including director Shaunak Sen, whose “All That Breathes” became one of the most honored nonfiction films of 2022 after premiering virtually at last year’s Sundance.

And then there’s Emilia Jones, who appears in two 2023 Sundance films, “Fairyland” and “Cat Person,” two years after missing her chance at a Park City premiere for “CODA.” That film went on to become the first Sundance premiere to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, which gives Jones’ status as a Sundance queen a little extra oomph. Such are the odd possibilities for this delayed-gratification Sundance.