Report from Sundance

by | February 2, 2024 | Newsletter

I had an intense, inspiring and quite informative time at Sundance this year.  I committed to seeing films (where in the past I might only catch two or three films over five days), this year I got to see seven in Park City and then another seventeen after I got home.  There were a lot of incredible films – a great year for Eugene Hernandez’s first as director of the festival.  I was also able to catch up with quite a number of people and 8 Above even co-hosted our first Sundance party on Saturday with the DPA, TFC and Portrait.

People have talked about/written about Sundance’s role in saving independent film (see Scott Macaulay’s excellent Editor’s Letter from last week). This is being asked of Sundance because of the role Sundance has had in supporting independent film.  Sundance not only supports excellent films through their lab and other support programs, but the large sales at Sundance benefited many filmmakers and financiers in years past. Many would say that Sundance launched the independent film sales market in the US and remains one of the few such in existence.  Many other films were financed based on the illusion that this could happen to anyone.

But the dark side of this is that these sales created a mythology that most filmmakers until very recently believed (and unfortunately many still do): You could make a film (without even considering if there was an audience for it) and then sell it and even perhaps get rich. Most importantly:  you wouldn’t be responsible for connecting that film to an audience. Someone else – the distributor would take care of that.  You could cash the check and make another film.

This system has never worked for all, even most, filmmakers and has been broken since at least 2007. Even Sundance recognized this and created Artist Services and the Creative Distribution Fellowship to help the plethora of Sundance films that never sold during or after the festival.  The problem with the supposed golden age of documentaries wasn’t just that it only helped a relatively small number of filmmakers, but that it reinvigorated the mythology of sales as salvation for filmmakers when the underlying system was anemic at best and flailing at worst.

Fortunately, the vast swath of the independent film community is keenly aware of the problem now and there are a lot of interesting initiatives being launched.  While on the one hand, I hope that there are sales and worthy films find homes and that this perhaps results in audiences seeing their films and their goals being realized.  On the other hand, I would be concerned that an avalanche of sales would reignite the mythology and potentially impede the very labor-intensive work being conceptualized to rebuild our system on multiple fronts –through organizations, entrepreneurs/companies, legislation, regulation – so that we as a community are not reliant on monopolistic entities that don’t care about our art or sustainability – and are only concerned for their profit and share price.

At the festival, I was able to talk to a number of people creating programs that were either in place or being developed.  I have believed that a lot of audience data exits in our world – amassed by intrepid filmmakers and companies – but much of this data has been poorly utilized and shared.  One exciting innovation I heard about from three different companies was a new data-driven form of PVOD/TVOD model for independents. The three are Kinema, Eventive and a third company I cannot name yet.  I thought something was up recently with Kinema when I saw how Israelism was releasing their film. While direct-to-consumer TVOD models have existed for some time, the difference here is that each of these companies have large data sets of consumers (10 million tickets sold in the case of Eventive) and they have figured out a way to legally use this data to help filmmakers connect to new audiences.  Eventive’s is the Eventive Discovery Portal – Kinema’s is Watch Now. You can read about Watch Now in Christie Marchese’s post here.  Presumably, you could use each of these platforms non-exclusively to reach different audiences.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with these platforms in the near future with one of our projects and reporting on them in more detail later.

Other initiatives are brewing – but back to the films!  One that blew me away both in content and form was Gary Hustwit’s Eno.  Besides being an excellently crafted film about a brilliant musician who I didn’t realize was a lay philosopher, Gary and his team created an AI engine that recuts the film for every screening – in other words, you will never see the same film twice.  Each screening in a theatrical run will be unique. A week-long theatrical would require 21 different DCPs.  I’ve already heard from keyboard nerds who will see the film multiple times just to see new elements that they hadn’t seen. But I have a feeling Gary is planning something bigger than traditional theatrical. He has been an innovator in event cinema since Helvetica and it will be exciting to see what he does with Eno (not to mention the merch possibilities).

Other films that I really loved were Sujo, Ibelin, Realm of Satan (made by one of my super talented former Cal Arts students Scott Cummings!), Eternal You (for me the best of several films dealing with AI — two of which dealt with AI and death in a smart and critical way), Daughters (one of several films dealing with daughters relationships with their fathers at the festival), Gaucho Gaucho, Dig XX (which reinvigorated the immense respect I have for Ondi Timoner’s craft). I still missed some films I was hoping to see such as I Saw The TV Glow, which I’m sure I would have loved – but it already has a distributor and I generally didn’t see films that already had distribution in place or where distribution was pending. Hats off to the entire Sundance team for an excellent program and festival.

While I was privileged to be able to attend the festival (partly because I have a free place to stay in Park City) not everyone has that ability – and that expense does create a barrier.  This is well pointed out in Megan Gilbride and Rebecca Green’s post from last week: Sundance Reinvented in which they propose an alternative touring structure for the Sundance festival that not only could reduce the cost of attending the festival but would enable filmmakers to use their premiere festivals (and the resources needed for a Sundance festival launch) to launch the entire distribution of their film – this is something I advocated for in Think Outside the Box Office and I think their proposed Reinvention could help a lot of filmmakers. It would also support art houses and most importantly help develop new audiences.