Some of the films at this year’s festival with the most commercial promise deal with challenging subject matter.
When the 2022 Sundance Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, it’s set to be a sellers market for the 80 percent of the 83-film lineup seeking distribution. Buyers are hungry, and the lineup is heavy on documentaries and genre titles, which remain appealing to theatrical distributors and streamers alike. But will this year bring another “CODA”?
Don’t expect another blockbuster deal on opening night. Last year, “CODA” screened as the first slot in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, where it later won the top prizes, and Apple swooped in to pay a record-breaking $25 million for world rights. This time around, that slot is filled by “Emergency,” a comedy thriller from director Carey Williams produced by Amazon Studios, which will release the film later this year. The other high-profile opening night entry is Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut “When You Finish Saving the World,” from A24.
Agents and buyers are divided on whether the 2022 festival will see another record-breaking sale. The odds are good: each of the last several festivals have seen records broken, and streamers’ pocketbooks remain open for the right films. But the fact is that there are few films in vein of “CODA,” the feel-good coming-of-age story that captured an underrepresented perspective without touching any political third rails.
Many of this years most promising commercial prospects have an edge: “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” has star power in Regina Hall and producer Daniel Kaluuya, while taking a satirical aim at Southern Baptist culture. Rachel Lears follows Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez once again in “To the End,” a film about the fight for climate change. And Phyllis Nagy’s “Call Jane” features Elizabeth Banks in a drama about abortion access, albeit from the safer distance a period piece provides.
“There’s movies that seem really audience friendly, but they’re challenging subject matters,” said one theatrical acquisitions executive. “So how does the broader country take to that subject matter?”
Indeed. In a blog post for the Sundance Institute, director of programming Kim Yutani described a recurring theme in the lineup as “fight the system.” However, ambitious smaller-scale theatrical distributors see potential in edgier material that requires a careful approach; some even expressed optimism that the breadth of films available will mean fewer opportunities for streamers to price them out out of the market.
The dominance of two types of films across this year’s lineup illustrate the primary types of projects getting financed today as well as the ones where buyers see great potential: genre films and documentaries.
Sundance’s genre entries extend well beyond the Midnight section this year. Among the hottest are John Patton Ford’s Aubrey Plaza-starring thriller “Emily the Criminal,” Chloe Okuno’s “Watcher,” and Nikyatu Jusu’s supernatural character study “Nanny.” (All three are from first-time feature directors, a distinction held by some 42 percent of the festival lineup.) While these movies won’t have the instant boost of a live audience reaction, they are exactly the sort of fare that buyers recognize as having potential to take off with wider audiences.
Meanwhile, high-profile documentaries with sales potential include the volcanologist romance “Fire of Love” and the Al Qaida rehabilitation story “Jihad Rehab.” These non-fiction offerings will be jockeying for attention alongside documentary launches from streaming entities, including Netflix’s multi-part Kanye West profile “Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” HBO’s Evan Rachel Wood miniseries “Phoenix Rising,” and Eva Longoria’s “La Guerra Civil,” a look at boxing legend Julio César Chavez produced by OTT sports service DAZN. The presence of these titles speak to the sheer competitive landscape of the year ahead, which has been compounded by the uncertain of the theatrical market and an overabundance of streaming options.
Distributors who tend to focus on theatrical are taking fragile steps into the pandemic-era landscape, where the high-end of the box office has seen the greatest rebound. Arthouse fare and adult-skewing dramas remain some of the poorest performers. But an earlier lack of clarity around releasing has given way to a new attitude, where uncertainty is a constant and cycles like case surges and new variants reveal opportune times to date (and re-date) films. Flexibility remains of utmost importance. “I think we see an opportunity for shorter releases to still be impactful outside not only for awards but outside of them,” said one sales agent. “The desire for a theatrical experience from creative talent is still really high.”
That means buyers have to be prepared to improvise. “We’re more flexible with distributors to the extent that we can be on release dates,” one sales agent said. “If we’ve pre-sold a film internationally, there are some things that need to be accommodated,” like delivery dates.
Jordan Fields, VP of acquisitions at Shout! Factory, said that the new paradigm for acquisitions was preparing for a worst case scenario. “You have to bake in language to any contract that allows for contingencies if a theatrical window is no longer tenable,” he said. “You need to plan for alternative timelines — ‘Well, if the numbers go down, here’s Plan A. If the numbers stay up, here’s Plan B.’ You have to be nimble and be able to pivot if you need to.”
That was the case with Shout!’s “Old Henry,” which saw its October theatrical release scaled back. But its Venice laurels and the kind of press attention given to a theatrical release trickled down to VOD, where it saw favorable placement on apps thanks to its profile, Fields said.
Pre-pandemic, a film lived and died on its grosses. These days, theatrical distributors see the opportunity in brick-and-mortar releases differently — as vehicles to boost their films’ profiles with press and marketing to make them more valuable on VOD and as part of output deals with streamers. “They all have pipelines to fill with SVOD partners, and that’s a big part of how they offset the risk theatrically,” one agent said.
IFC Films President Arianna Bocco and her new acquisitions chief Scott Shooman will be at the festival looking for some of the 30 films the company plans to release this year; it also has Spotlight pick “Happening” (which won the top prize at Venice last fall) and Midnight selection “Hatching” playing at the festival.
“The key is having the ability to be flexible and tailor a film’s release to however we see fit, versus being locked into a certain format,” Bocco said. “We’re agnostic to the platform and we’ll tailor a release strategy to what’s best for the movie. I think there’s very few distributors who can do that successfully now.” Last year, that included “Bergman Island,” which went to VOD after debuting in 115 theaters in October and is now on Hulu.
Of course, it’s hard to fully assess the metrics of a successful Sundance pickup when the VOD market remains so opaque. “I don’t even know how to quantify that anymore,” one sales agent said. “It’s not one size fits all.”
With that in mind, here are 15 titles that could sell big at this year’s festival.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.
Domestic and international: WME
For her first feature, Abi Damaris Corbin assembled a cast that includes John Boyega, Connie Britton, and the late Michael K. Williams in his final role. Boyega stars as a veteran who decides to rob a bank after he’s driven to financial desperation. The combination of cast and important social message suggests commercial potential for this film and it could catch the eye of a streamer, especially if the performances of Boyega and others are awards material.
“Am I OK?”
Domestic and international: UTA
The directorial debut of married creatives Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne stars Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno as Lucy and Jane, two best friends who must navigate major changes in their lives when Jane agrees to move away for a job and Lucy confesses her deepest secret: that she loves women and has for a long time. With major name recognition in Notaro and Johnson, and Allynne a regular on “The L Word: Generation Q,” this comedy-drama has the potential to appeal to a broader audience beyond its obvious core queer viewership.
Domestic: UTA / International: Protagonist
With a cast led by Elizabeth Banks and Signourney Weaver, Oscar-nominated “Carol” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy makes her directorial debut with a film based on the real-life Jane Collective, an underground organization that helped women access abortions before Roe V. Wade, when the procedure was illegal in most of the U.S. With a strong cast and Nagy’s acclaimed body of work, “Call Jane” is appealing to a range of distributors as abortion rights face increasing restrictions once again.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth”
Domestic and international: WME, ICM, Endeavor Content
Since the then-22-year-old’s debut “Shithouse” won the top prize at the canceled edition of SXSW in 2020, writer-director Cooper Raiff has been tapped to co-write a show for Amazon and direct a film written by “Billions” scribe Adam Perlman — all before his sophomore feature “Cha Cha Real Smooth” even premiered. The film prompted a bidding war for the privilege of financing and producing it and attracted a cast led by Dakota Johnson. Raiff stars a young college grad putting his partying skills to good use when he lands a job as a bar mitzvah hype man. He finds direction after meeting a mom (Johnson) and her teenage daughter, who has autism. The film should be an easy sell to many breeds of distributor, from IFC Films — which released Raiff’s debut — to some of its deep-pocketed competitors who might want to get into business with this rising talent.
“Emily the Criminal”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Domestic and international: CAA, ICM, Verve
Twelve years after his Oscar-shortlisted short “Patrol” premiered at Sundance, writer-director John Patton Ford returns to the festival with a feature debut that’s high on many distributors’ must-watch lists, which some agents are positioning as “a female ‘Drive.’” Aubrey Plaza plays the titular Emily, who faces deadly consequences after a credit card scam pulls her into the noir-tinged underbelly of Los Angeles. Word is that the film punches above its indie-budget weight and that Plaza’s dark performance pairs well with that of Theo Rossi, who plays her partner in crime.
“Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul”
Domestic and international: UTA, CAA, ICM
Writer-director Adamma Ebo earned the backing of Issa Rae when the “Insecure” star featured Ebo’s short “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul” on her YouTube channel in 2019. Three years later, Ebo makes her feature debut with a full-length expansion of that story, a mockumentary tracing the outrageous story of a Southern Baptist megachurch’s pastor and first lady in their attempts to resurrect their parish following a scandal. Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall are the leads and Daniel Kaluuya is among the producers of the film, which skewers religion and capitalism. Early reports say it has serious crowdpleaser potential, especially with buyers eager to attract Black audiences around the country. Ebo and her team, which includes producer/twin sister Adanne Ebo, will likely have their pick of distributor, including streamers eager to establish a relationship with a promising fresh voice.
Domestic and international: CAA, Rocket Science
The latest film from Queer Palm-winner Oliver Hermanus (“Beauty”) stars Bill Nighy as a bureaucrat in post-World War II Britain who’s inspired to find meaning in a modest building project after he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness. Adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” the period piece should be attractive to theatrical distributors eager for a standout adult-skewing drama bolstered by an emotional turn from a beloved actor who might bring awards potential to the project.
“Meet Me in the Bathroom”
Domestic: UTA / International: Universal International
Combining never-before-seen footage of bands like The Moldy Peaches, LCD Soundsystem, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, with intimate audio interviews, Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace’s documentary (adapted from the book of the same name) paints a portrait of pre-9/11 New York City and the music scene born on the Lower East Side. Oscilloscope distributed Southern and Lovelace’s 2012 documentary “Shut Up and Play the Hits”; 10 years later, even bigger distributors will see the potential in the film’s built-in audience during a time that music docs are among the hottest buys.
Domestic and international: CAA
Writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut arrives at Sundance with high expectations; the project went through the 2019 IFP Project Forum, the 2020 Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs, and made the 2020 Black List, while Jusu was named by Variety as one of this year’s Directors to Watch. “Nanny” follows an undocumented Senegalese immigrant whose work as a nanny finds her cast as a pawn in her employers’ troubled marriage while a supernatural presence invades. The work of such a promising new voice means many distributors’ eyes are on Jusu: It could be an ideal acquisition for a theatrical distributor or a streamer interested in positioning her work as a standout on their platform.
Domestic and international: WME, 2am
Writer-director Andrew Semans’ sophomore effort stars Rebecca Hall as a woman whose orderly life is disrupted when she starts encountering a man from her past (Tim Roth) in meetings that begin to feel like more than unlucky coincidences. “Resurrection” makes its Sundance debut after Hall’s own “Passing” was acquired by Netflix at the festival last year and another horror film she starred in, “The Night House,” was picked up by Searchlight the year before. The appeal of Hall’s work and the continued promise of genre elements make this film one that streamers and theatrical distributors are eyeing.
Domestic and international: CAA, FilmNation
Five years after the last episode of “Girls” aired, the intrigue and controversy around Lena Dunham remains. Her first feature directorial effort since “Tiny Furniture” premiered in 2010, “Sharp Stick” has plenty of potential to be provocative in its own right. Kristine Froseth plays a sensitive 26-year-old who lives in Los Angeles with her influencer sister and disillusioned mother and works as a caregiver to a child with an intellectual disability. Eager to lose her virginity, Froseth’s character embarks on a doomed affair with the boy’s father. Dunham’s profile means everyone is curious about her latest work — and that should ensure it quickly finds a home, but with whom exactly will be determined by the film’s execution.
Domestic and international: WME, CAA
“Coded Bias,” which premiered at Sundance in 2020, helped establish Shalini Kantayya as a filmmaker with a sharp eye for peering behind the sheen of technology to explore its deep social impacts. Her follow-up, “TikTok, Boom.,” promises a similar approach to the app that has skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic. And with such broad appeal of its subject matter, the film would be in good company on Netflix, which streams “Coded Bias” and other behind-the-tech stories like “The Social Dilemma.”
“To the End”
Domestic and international: Cinetic
After her 2019 Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez-focused documentary “Knock Down the House” broke records when it sold to Netflix, Rachel Lears returns to the festival with a follow-up that shows just what a difference a few years made for Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive politicians. “To the End” trades the celebratory optimism of Lears’ earlier work for a more urgent tone, where the Green New Deal represents just the beginning of a dire fight for society’s future in the face of climate change. If they’re interested in taking on one of the most pressing issues of the day, streamers could deliver another rich deal for Lears. Otherwise, theatrical distributors with a taste for social-issue documentaries should be eager to add the film to their slates.
Domestic: Cinetic, UTA / International: AGC
After her 2014 short “Slut” earned a string of awards on the festival circuit, director Chloe Okuno makes her debut feature with support from many corners of the industry. Among the producers of “Watcher” are Roy Lee (“The Ring”), Mason Novick (“Juno”), Steven Schneider (“Paranormal Activity”), and Derek Dauchy (“Across the Universe”). That’s a suggestion of the commercial potential of Okuno’s genre effort, which has attracted wide interest from theatrical buyers and streamers alike. Maika Monroe plays a woman who relocates to her partner’s native Romania, where she becomes tormented by the feeling that she is being stalked by an unseen watcher in an adjacent apartment building.
“We Met in Virtual Reality”
Domestic and international: Cinetic
If there’s any film that’s right at home in Sundance’s all-virtual pivot, it’s Joe Hunting’s feature documentary debut. The British filmmaker employs familiar verite techniques in a groundbreaking way: “We Met in Virtual Reality” was shot entirely in the VR social platform VRChat, where Hunting followed several couples who met there during the pandemic. Though the uninitiated may think it’s animated, the movie is actually a live-capture of VR worlds that shows the full extent of their potential. The film could be a big opportunity for a buyer capable of crafting an outside-the-box distribution strategy that meets a large and underserved film audience: Meta has sold 10 million Oculus Quest 2 VR headsets, while Amazon’s Twitch sees an average of 30 million daily visitors.