Why Sundance is the hottest film festival around

2014-01-27 11:08
Park City - Thousands of films are made every year. And as you know if you live in South Africa most of them don't screen at all. Those that do rarely screen outside of festivals or big cities like LA, where you could basically curate your own film festival any day of the week if it weren't for the traffic.

It's really hard to get films distributed because big companies own those relationships and channels, and so oddly, selling movies is what Sundance (famous for it's left wing tastes and casual dress code) is all about – getting films out of Sundance and out to audiences.

Even in Week B, by which time many of the hottest deals have been done, you'll get a feel for the excitement. While waiting for a bus, two filmmakers smothered in their jackets strode past, talking.

Beanie Guy: "Whiplash? Yeah, Sony bought it. I think they got three or four million for it."
Ski Jacket Guy: "They got reviewed early."

This means that although Whiplash (think Black Swan meets House MD) doesn't yet have theatre distribution in South Africa, you'll probably be able to pick it up in your more sussed local video store, or buy it, or whatever you're forced to do to see what was the audience favourite of the festival and also snagged the coveted Special Jury Prize.

(So many films to see. It's the most wonderful torture imaginable.)

So what has distribution? And will it come to SA?

Wish I Was Here
Zach Braff co-wrote, directed and stars, with Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad and Ashley Greene. It'll be brought to South Africa by Focus Features.

I Origins
An Existential drama with Michael Pitt and Brit Marling – this is the kind of film of which Sundance is the saviour.

The Skeleton Twins
This might show up in South Africa – three companies share the rights. Sony has international distribution and it stars SNL / Bridesmaids babe Kristen Wigg with Bill Hader

God's Pocket
Anything starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman sells at Sundance, right? IFC Films bought this dark murder cover-up story, for US audiences.

Dramedy about a well-meaning priest from the church of the same name. Will be in US theatres and some international territories thanks to Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Saw meets Glee! Starring Rainn Wilson, Elijah Wood and Jack McBrayer. Lionsgate has it in North America. Should make video shops for sure, thanks to it's star power and the fact that it is hilarious and extremely gross.

Land Ho!
A bawdy road-trip comedy set in Reykjavik nightlife, goes out “worldwide” through Sony Pictures Classics. Hopefully worldwide includes SA.

Cesar's Last Fast
A documentary about Cesar Chavez's 36-day water-only fast to protest the plight of farm workers, bought by Pivot and Univison News. Hope to see it at festivals.

Drunktown's Finest
A charming, funny, coming of age story of three characters whose lives intersect on an American Indian reservation. Apparently has distribution but I can't figure out by whom, so can't say whether it'll make it to South Africa or not. Produced as part of Sundance Institutes filmmaker programmes. Look out for it!

Young Ones
Shot entirely in the Northern Cape, co-produced by Spier Films, this futuristic western by Director Jake Paltrow is a must-see for South Africans. Turner Classic Movies have distribution.

Dinosaur 13
Hopefully this will hit the SA circuit somehow – your older kids will love it, and so will you. Lionsgate and CNN got the rights for $1.3m – the 2014 Sundance trend being that people are bidding low, but buying up lots, as they did in the Weinstein/Redford/etc indie movie fever that first made the term “a thing” in the 1990s. I hate big budget film, so this makes me happy.

Love is Strange
According to Variety's Peter Debruge, a deeply moving story – another in what feels like a rash of wonderful films about love between older people. In this, the protagonists are gay men who get married late in life. Sony Pictures Classics nabbed it. Tickets have been sold out for every screening.

An odd comedy about a young wannabe musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who joins an eccentric pop band led by mysterious masked man Frank (Michael Fassbender), was bought by Magnolia, the company with the coolest name.

Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars
This documentary about an Iranian girl who wants to be an astronaut is only available to US and Canadian iTunes customers. So sadly, South Africa has no legal access to this movie at this moment. Let's hope it makes it to Encounters!

Greg Whiteley's documentary about the former Republican presidential candidate is already on Netflix (they made it) so Americans can watch it, while South Africans will probably have to wait for a festival if obeying international copyright law.

Love Child
A heavily-padded, history-channel-style HBO doccie about a South Korean couple who starved their baby to death by leaving it at home alone to feed their video game addiction.

And of course, the deals will continue to go down in LA and elsewhere. I hope that Audience Award Winners Difret (Ethiopia) and Alive Inside (incredible doc about music therapy's effect on dementia) both see the light. As I type, someone's probably writing a cheque. And then, Netflix can be relied upon to snap up anything with a flash of boobies or a fairly famous name.

(Parking is limited in Park City, but Free Buses take you from the lots and round and round town.)

Making things happen

The process of selling a film starts sometimes at the funding stages, sometime with script, sometimes with production support and sometimes only when the film is accepted, complete, to screen. It ends when someone hands over a few million dollars, or a distribution deal.  

Sundance is a place where you can make things happen. "I have found it to be a hugely friendly festival, especially  given its size and prominence," says South African Sundance filmmaking fellow, a member of the Cape Film Commission's delegation  Francois Verster, whose most recent documentary project Dream of Shahrazad has been supported by Sundance Institute grants. "There are really high profile people around and the willingness to engage is remarkable."

All the Sundance Award Winners

Jean Barker is at Sundance on a Film School Pass, to check it out and pig out on new movies. She hopes to return next time as a guest of the festival. She blogs at jeanbarker.wordpress.com and tweets as @jeanbarker

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