My Five Big Takeaways from Sundance 2019
As the dust settles on Sundance 2019 I recap what I learned.
It was an active and exciting year at Park City. I just barely survived my first trip there after coming down with a nasty cold towards the end.
The question weighing on my mind during the trip was what information from Sundance, or about Sundance, can help the filmmakers around the world who aren't able to attend? What can I tell all of you about coming to Sundance? Is it worth the airfare and the lodging (and the flu)?
You'll have to decide that for yourselves but I hope my takeaways can help you make that determination about future festivals and future Sundances.
So here are the five big things I took from Sundance 2019.
1. Ignore the Moment at Your Own Peril: Female Voices are Loud and Clear
There is an interesting thing happening in film and television right now, and it's not just that we're finally starting to see some balance in representation behind the camera. We're also seeing that balance on screen.
Considering this list of Sundance titles: The Farewell from Lulu Wang, Hala from Minhal Baig, Late Night from Mindy Kaling and Nisha Ganatra, and Paradise Hills from Alice Waddington. These movies all inhabit different genres, come from different female filmmakers, each with different cultural backgrounds. They also all made their own respective splashes at Sundance 2019.
But it goes a level deeper. These are also all stories about female protagonists. It gets even more interesting when you examine a few other movies from male filmmakers. Ms. Purple, for example, comes from filmmaker Justin Chon but at its center is a female protagonist struggling with the male relationships in her life, both good and bad.
The Death of Dick Long, from director Daniel Scheinert, is a darkly twisted "men behaving badly" story set in Alabama. Yet surrounding the foolish men and their dirty deeds in our fair nation's heartland is a cast of strong, smart, and ultimately in-control female characters. That's quite a contrast to earlier entries in the sub-genre like say Very Bad Things or even The Hangover.
There is not just an important shift in who is standing behind the camera, but in how women are being presented on screen.
It's a welcome and long overdue change, and this year's festival was a reminder that it doesn't limit our storytelling potential or anyone's opportunities. In fact, it opens up a ton of creative possibilities that have long gone ignored.
2. The Indie Episodic Program is a New Way In
Last year marked the debut of the Indie Episodic program and multiple projects that premiered there fulfilled the program's goal of connecting new artists to buyers (Starz and FX to name a few) at the festival. The indie episodic program in 2019 featured a number of high profile projects with early deals, Showtime picked up Wu-Tang Clan of Mics and Men just before the festival began, for example. Lilly Wachowski also came onboard Abby McEnany and Tim Mason's pilot Work in Progress.
So if your goal is TV and streaming, start working on your drama pilot and consider next year's Indie Episodic Program at Sundance.
The truth is if you have no budget it's quite hard to put together a feature film. But an indie-episodic is more within reach. This is Sundance creating some room for those voices to be heard, so anyone with an idea and a camera can climb into the ring and look to secure a major creative partnership, or deal.
3. Big Buys and Mega-deals are Still Happening
Amazon paid 14 million and 13 million respectively for The Report and Late Night. New Line paid 15 million for Blinded by the Light.
But it wasn't just about the return of the big deal. There were many deals to go around, including some new buyers on some smaller films. Apple entered into the marketplace with an undisclosed sum for coming of age drama Hala, for example.
Some projects come to Sundance with distribution essentially in place, sure, but there is also still an active market there and some very large purchase prices to go with.
As more platforms come into the fray, more purchases will be made pushing for unique content from emerging voices. Hala is not a conventional story, nor is Apple a conventional buyer.
4. Docs Continue to Dominate
There were a large number of buzz-worthy docs at Sundance this year. In our world, the truth continues to be a lot stranger than fiction. Leaving Neverland, the four-hour doc covering Michael Jackson's sexual abuse, left viewers aghast and was hit with protests. Where's My Roy Cohn and David Crosby: Remember My Name were both purchased by Sony Pictures Classics.
It was a big year for impactful documentaries and as long as the world continues to provide us with such inspiring, harrowing, and fascinating stories filmmakers can always considering tabling narrative ideas they feel stuck on, instead just grabbing their cameras and capturing the stories around them.
5. Your Voice Is Your Passport
One thing that has become very clear to me after going to Sundance is that Sundance is looking for individual voices. It doesn't need to be tied to any specific point of view, either. It just needs YOUR point of view.
There were many unique voices at Sundance, and they came from men and women of different backgrounds. If you tell a story unique to you and your experience, your odds of landing at Sundance are significantly higher.
I used to think I'd wait to go to a festival until I had a film there. That wasn't the wisest choice in hindsight. Going to festival means learning what the festival programs.
You'll actually see the programmers for each section intro the film, and they'll actually tell you why they selected the film, and what the program is all about.
This is your cheat sheet for finding the right festival for your project.
Go to Sundance, or any festival, to learn more about the movies being made. Be at the tip of the spear. Meet the other filmmakers and potential collaborators. Get a sense of what's happening at this moment in filmmaking, and video content creation.
It's always changing, and by being at ground zero you gain invaluable knowledge.
If you don't go you are flying blind.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.