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Sundance So Far: Never Mind the Movies, Let’s Talk About Politics and Weather

Sundance 2017: The festival has had one true breakout, ”The Big Sick,“ and a whole lot of offscreen distractions


Opening weekend of the Sundance Film Festival, here’s what everybody was talking about, in roughly this order:

1. The Women’s March.
2. The inauguration of Donald Trump. (Related to No. 1, of course.)
3. The weather.
4. And, oh yeah, movies.

Sundance may be ground zero for independent filmmaking, an essential annual showcase for indie cinema in all its forms. But sometimes the offscreen events are bigger than the onscreen ones, which was certainly the case for the first four days of Sundance 2017.

The festival began on Thursday with politics in the air, and Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen’s documentary “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” set the tone.

The film included Trump’s dismissive comments about Al Gore’s climate-change crusade a couple of times, and near the end featured a scene of Gore riding the Trump Tower elevator to speak to the then-president-elect.

And after the screening, Gore pointedly said that the fight to move to renewable energy sources “cannot be stopped by one man.”

But that one man did just about stop Sundance in its tracks for the next two days, with the inauguration hanging over the festival on Friday and giving festival-goers a choice: Try to check in on the events in Washington, D.C., between screenings, or immerse yourself in movies to avoid the news from the capital.

And the next day, Sundance was consumed by the Women’s March, which galvanized the festival far beyond anything a movie could do. It also snarled traffic on Main Street, swamped Park City wi-fi and drove Uber prices through the roof — but Sundance was crowded and expensive even without the march, so the inconvenience hardly dented the feeling of unity that swept through the festival.

Then there was the weather. A large snowstorm blew in overnight Friday, turning sidewalks into muddy slosh and making the act of navigating from theater to theater, or just walking down Main Street, a monumental chore. Quickly, festival newbies began asking if it was always this much of a mess, and longtime Sundancers struggled to remember the last time the fest had to deal with weather this severe.

For a while, that unholy convergence of politics and weather managed to almost make Sundance’s films something of an afterthought. The first weekend saw only one undeniable home run, Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” with screenwriters Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani re-creating their courtship and the film sparking a bidding war that ended with Amazon shelling out a reported $12 million, by far the festival’s biggest deal so far.

It wasn’t the festival’s only hit: Dee Rees’ deep-south saga “Mudbound” won its share of raves (though some viewers, including this one, found it too melodramatic), while “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” “Landline,” “L.A. Times,” “Ingrid Goes West,” “Thoroughbred,” “A Ghost Story” and “Walking Out” all played well. So did “Wind River,” the directorial debut of “Hell or High Water” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan.

On the documentary side, always a Sundance strength, standouts included Kitty Green’s daring “Casting JonBenet,” Peter Bratt’s “Dolores” and Amanda Lipitz’s “Step.”

Traffic has been a nightmare in Park City, but money is exchanging hands easily as indies started flying off the shelf after “Big Sick” got wallets out of pockets.

Amazon took the Apatow-produced winner away from smaller labels and big studios like Sony for $12 million, but will per company line give it a full and exclusive theatrical release before it hits the company’s online Prime service.

Sony Pictures Classics paid roughly $5 million for Maggie Betts’ “Novitiate,” a film about young nuns in the 1960s who are disrupted by the Catholic Church’s controversial Vatican II decree.

The Orchard paid low-seven figures for Sam Elliot’s “The Hero,” about a washed-up Western hero whose chickens come home to roost. Indie label Neon took “Ingrid Goes West” and Netflix is snacking on “Fun Mom Dinner” for roughly $5 million as well.

The Sundance market, which was quiet for the first couple of days, picked up steam over the weekend; it’s almost as if the distractions of the inauguration, the march and the storm took people’s minds off the business of Sundance, but at a certain point they remembered what they were there to do.

Now, if President Trump will keep quiet and Mother Nature will calm down, maybe Park City can focus on watching movies for the week that remains.

Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.

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