Sundance is finally back in-person, but why does this year feel different?
After two long years of sitting at home and watching movies on our laptops, one of the most influential and exciting film festivals for independent filmmakers is back. This Thursday, filmmakers, buyers, journalists, and film lovers will return to Park City, Utah to celebrate the return of Sundance.
But after two years of silence from the fest, there is something in the air that feels... off.
This year's Sundance feels dizzying. No one is quite sure what to expect from the fest. The market is tightening its purse strings as distributors figure out how many projects they can sustain in a year. On top of this industry change, Sundance has adopted a new model that favors production over acquisition.
A lot has changed, and we can’t help but ask the question: Does Sundance still matter?
Let’s get into it.
Where Does Sundance Stand in Our Community?
First off, Sundance is still, and probably will always be, one of the biggest film festivals in the world. It is where deals are made, and there is a good chance that most features and shorts will be acquired by someone who loves and appreciates a filmmaker's work. That’s the dream, and Sundance will never extinguish that ray of light in our community.
But that light is dimmer this year.
It seems like fewer titles are available this year compared to last year, and everything in the market places is evolving at a pace that distributors can’t keep up.
According to multiple sales agents that spoke with IndieWire, “Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, Searchlight, and A24 have been vocal about needing at least one movie for their slates.” Neon, HBO, and IFC Films are on the ground, but they are looking for films that fit their specific desires. Major players will be fighting for the films debuting at Sundance – mostly the ones that have not already been acquired by one of the studios that I have listed above – which is great news for filmmakers.
The idea for these buyers is that there is something for everyone, but 20 percent of the films screening at Park City are not up for grabs.
“Things are gonna be a little more disciplined, ” a documentary executive told IndieWire. “There is going to be more formality, if not limitation, in what does or doesn’t get acquired.”
Buyers are already cautious about the films they want. When there are fewer selections and buyers want “the right product,” everybody is left stretching their heads, wondering what to do if their film sells. The bigger question following everyone around like a ghost is: “What if our film doesn’t sell?”
On a brighter note, executives who spoke to IndieWire had a bit of optimism to give to the commercial titles playing at this year’s fest.
After the success of lower-budget films in 2022, like Everything Everywhere All At Once, Smile, and Barbarian, distributors may be looking for a strong, focused story based on community. Distributors are looking for a film with a communal factor that demands to be seen in a theater. What elements create a theater-worthy film are slightly beyond me. I assume these stories must tap into the culture in one way or another to bring a community together to celebrate the art of great cinema and storytelling.
Streamers will also be on the lookout for films to acquire, but, like everyone else, they have tightened their purse strings. Apple, who acquired the Oscar-winning film CODA for a record $25 million at 2020's Sundance, might have realized that acquiring films may be cheaper than producing in-house titles.
We might not see a massive acquisition like CODA ever again or, at the least, not this year.
For filmmakers, Sundance does matter, and it will always matter. The only issue is the smaller slate of films screening at the fest. More films made by filmmakers looking for distributors need to be showcased at Sundance. Plenty of other film festivals will be happening throughout the country all year, allowing more audiences to celebrate great films that already have a place to call home.
I do wish all of the filmmakers, casts, crews, and teams behind the films showing at 2023 Sundance a happy fest. May the odds be in your favor!
Are there other issues that you have with Sundance this year? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.