January 30, 2023

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Sundance: Will Covid and Indie Film Struggles Come Back?

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When Joanna Vicente was a producer and later an independent film executive, she would take her young children with her to Sundance so they could learn to ski while watching the latest movies. The plane ride from New York City to Utah was always a festive occasion, as artists and executives greeted each other and talked excitedly about that year’s lineup. But it gave his children a wrong idea of ​​what air travel is really like. On the next vacation, Vicente’s son asked his mother a question.

“My son was surprised that we didn’t know anyone on the plane,” remembers Vicente. “He was so used to what happened when we went to Sundance. And the plane is where the conversation begins. Where there’s a sense of a community coming together with anticipation and excitement to see what’s new and what’s going to blow your mind.”

For the past two years, such in-flight reunions haven’t been happening, at least not on the way to Sundance. The festival has been forced to go virtual for the previous two editions as a covid concession. In 2023, despite a new subvariant and chatter about a “tripledemic” involving not just Covid, but RSV and the flu, Sundance is finally coming back in person. It is the last of the major film festivals to do so, and its revival comes in 2021 under the leadership of Vicente, named CEO of the Sundance Institute.

“We missed being together,” said Vicente. “There are things that can’t be replicated in the conversations you have at a virtual festival like the conversations you have while you’re waiting for a film to start or the connections you make while you’re waiting to pay for a coffee or the connections you make while taking the shuttle to a screening.”

But as the independent film industry prepares to head to the mountains for a week and a half of screenings and panels, it’s looking for a sense of community at a time when the business that pays for the art form is mired in depression. The movies, especially those aimed at adults, struggled at the box office, with critics’ favorites such as “The Fablemans”, “The Banshees of Inisharine” and “Her” failing to attract crowds. Indie film executives insist they’re not giving up and point to the success of “Everything Everything All at Once,” a twisty multiverse caper that grossed more than $100 million worldwide, as proof that audiences will still come to see off-beat stories that are well told. Either.

“It’s not that audiences aren’t coming, it’s just that those who are showing up may be different and the types of movies that appeal to them may be changing,” said IFC Films President Ariana Boko. “It’s more of a ‘smart house’ crowd, which is younger than the traditional 50-plus arthouse audience. But I don’t think that’s caught on to the content we’re creating.”

At the same time, many streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, which once drove up the price of indie films through bidding wars, have engaged in rounds of cost-cutting and layoffs as they stare down a possible recession. For agents looking to set top prices, does this mean they have to settle for lower prices in an economic downturn? Outwardly at least, they are projecting an air of business as usual. The thirst for content and the need to attract customers and retain those who sign up will leave these services with no choice but to keep spending, they argue.

“If you put seven streamers through a polygraph, they would probably admit that their content budgets total close to $120 billion,” said John Sloss, a veteran manager, agent and founder of Cinetic Media. “Of course, it’s not entirely spent on Sundance films, but it’s a lot of money.”

Sundance, which welcomes filmmakers and studio executives this year, hasn’t exactly been preserved in amber. The organizers of the festival used this loophole to make some changes. Gone are the secret screenings that in the past attracted incongruous major studio offerings like the forgettable Taron Egerton dramedy “Eddie the Eagle” and the sci-fi debacle “Jupiter Ascending.” Moreover, Park City will show fewer films in fewer venues (Sundance dropped two theaters, the Mark and the Temple). It added a theater in nearby Salt Lake City as a way to expand its reach beyond its rich base of film fans who have the means to travel to the ritzy ski town where Sundance has traditionally unfolded.

More controversially, the festival chose to retain a virtual element. Most Sundance movies will be screened through the festival’s online hub 24 hours after their premiere. Some sales agents are unhappy with the decision, believing it will make it more difficult for them to build excitement around the film.

“At the end of the day, hopefully Sundance will recognize the needs of the market and the importance of buyers attending,” Sloss said. “If movies premiere virtually the next day, you lose three-quarters of your audience audience.”

Josh Brown, co-founder of Submarine Entertainment, a production and sales company behind previous Sundance films such as “Boys Town” and “The Cove.”

“I can live with it, but I don’t like it,” he says. “You can’t replicate that feeling that happens when you have a packed audience and feel how a real human audience is going to react to a movie.”

But it’s also true that there was something about the thin mountain air in pre-COVID times that could cause studios to make rash, even costly mistakes. Plenty of films like “Blinded by the Light” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” received rave reviews from audiences at festivals and grabbed major deals to bomb at the box office. Some studio executives hope that negotiations for the movies will be in a more tense atmosphere and would like to see an end to the all-night bidding wars that once captivated the festival.

“Before COVID, you went to these huge mansions that were occupied by sales agents where you were invited to watch movies in the basement at midnight,” says Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics. “I don’t miss those viewing conditions.”

For its part, Sundance says it has heard the concerns of sales agents, but believes there needs to be a role for virtual screenings at future festivals. To allay concerns, the festival has allowed films to opt out of a virtual element – but more than 80 films will be made available digitally to passholders.

“We want every film to be covered, every film to be reviewed, so it gives us more people at the table and more of a conversation piece,” says Vicente.

For filmmakers flocking to Sundance, the anxiety and excitement of showing their latest work to a full house of movie buffs doesn’t compare. They are returning, armed with Covid tests, eager to rejoin communities strained by business struggles, production challenges and long separations. For director Justin Chon, this will be his third time premiering a film at Sundance. He starred in 2017’s “Gook” and 2019’s “Ms. Purple,” and he’s back in 2023 with “Jamojaya,” a family drama about a budding Indonesian rapper.

“I’m so relieved and excited that Sundance is back in person,” Chon said. “That’s why I made this film. I want to share that with an audience, and there’s nothing that can replicate the kind of communal experience you get at a place like Sundance.”

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