Sundance 2020 Hot Titles: Short On Must-Have Pics, Long On Timely, Provocative Subject Matter

Mike Fleming Jr

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The 2020 Sundance Film Festival gets underway today, and it has been the toughest market to handicap in a good long time. Conversations with buyers and sellers point to a lack of obvious star power in the slate of pictures available for acquisition. It could well be a quiet market, meaning that the sums could be modest with dealmaking for most films lingering beyond the festival. Toronto was that way last fall, but that festival held the promise of the splashy Hugh Jackman-Allison Janney film Bad Education, which scored an HBO deal that came in just below the $17.5 Birth of a Nation deal that still holds the Sundance record. If there is a film like that here, it was pre-bought and comes into Sundance with distribution. There are 27 films entering the festival with distribution, compared with 22 last year.

That doesn’t mean that the Sundance market won’t pop with a handful of big deals, particularly when there are established and emerging streamers hungry for finished films to place on OTT services jockeying for consumer bucks. Some predicted last year’s market would be slow, but Amazon drove the commerce with a spate of eight-figure deals for the films Late Night (record $13M U.S. rights deal), Brittany Runs a Marathon ($14M world rights deal) and The Report ($14M WW rights), with Netflix setting a festival documentary high bar when it spent $10 million for Knock Down the House, chronicling the congressional runs of a group of outsiders that included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The streamers have been recently paying eye-popping sums for music films from artists like the $20 million-plus Apple TV+ deal for the RJ Cutler-directed Billie Eilish film, and a Netflix stand-up comedy specials for the likes of Eddie Murphy. As the battleground rages for OTT services jockeying to build a customer base, the streamers can easily turn 2020 Sundance into a boom market if acquisition execs repping Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Hulu, Disney+, and HBO Max (it’s probably too early for Peacock) discover films they think will appeal to their subscriber base.

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“All of us used to come to Sundance making bids that were based on estimates of what a movie might gross, and how much money it would cost to market it, and wins and losses were determined by subtracting purchase price,” one longtime distribution head said. “Now, it’s impossible to grade these films that are acquired by the streamers, because box office is about the least important metric. It has become very difficult to compete when one of them really wants a film.”

While it can be said that Warner Bros miscalculated in believing that the Bruce Springsteen-tinged Blinded By the Light which it acquired for $15M WW rights would perform like the Beatles-tinged Yesterday, it’s harder to ascertain exactly whether Netflix got $10 million worth out of Knock Down the House, or for the $9 million it spent to acquire the Ted Bundy drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, or what Amazon realized from its big buys, which didn’t crush it at the box office but have been among the most watched titles on the Amazon Prime streaming service. None of the services are that transparent about how many people are watching — Netflix occasionally brags about its biggest hits, but even talent is left to mostly wonder how much of their film is being viewed (Netflix’s earnings call disclosure that it changed its reporting metric from counting views of 70% of a movie to giving credit for 2 minutes of viewing has raised the eyebrows of talent reps who lament the lack of transparency). Netflix also doesn’t report box office grosses of the awards films that precede streaming service with theatrical runs.

“The streamers make markets like Sundance entirely unpredictable,” said another tenured indie distribution chief. “Turning an acquisition into a theatrical hit is not for the faint of heart in the best of circumstances. It is the true test of a movie and not all of them get a passing grade and when they fail, you read about it.” He said there are no such optics in the streaming world. If you look at all of the big purchases last year, there were no award films that came out of Sundance, and the breakout hit, The Farewell, was not predicted when it was acquired. Back then, the $6 million or $7 million spent seemed high, but then you see Lulu Wang say that streamers offered double, and that she was glad they took less money and went with A24. I think we will see a course correction, with more modest deals, unless something really proves itself in that first screening. Then, all bets are off.”

One cannot get too hung up in grading Sundance films by the price tags paid. It’s a festival where great filmmakers took their first steps, and there is every chance that the next Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay or Steven Soderbergh is right now nervously awaiting the first screenings of a movie that will launch their stars. These films are pure indie and spirit and some could use a good edit and a trim of running time and marketing, and that is where good distributors come in.

There is the promise of tour de force performances by Paul Bettany in the Alan Ball-directed Uncle Frank (that one I saw and it’s the best I’ve ever seen the estimable Bettany); Benedict Cumberbatch in Ironbark; Michael Keaton in Worth; and Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander and Bette Midler in the Julie Taymor-directed Gloria Steinem film. And a directorial debut by Viggo Mortensen, whose magical Captain Fantastic run began here at Sundance. And Sean Durkin is back with The Nest, after he made his mark at Sundance 2011 with Martha Marcy May Marlene. In a year short on comedies, watch for the Andy Samberg-Cristin Milioti starrer Palm Springs.

As for the embraceable upstarts, how about newcomer Rahda Blank, the director-writer-producer-star of 40-Year-Old Version, playing a playwright-rapper poised for her breakthrough, conditioned that she compromise her vision to white-ify her play to appease backers. I saw that one too, and Blank seems like a firecracker who will be easy for the press to root for. Or Justin Simien’s Bad Hair, a Midnight Section horror film about an ambitious woman who gets a weave to make it on music television in its 1989 heyday, and discovers tress distress when the weave proves to have a murderous mind all its own?

Here are the 24 films mentioned most often by distributors looking to supplement slates with finished films. The narrative pics are mixed with what looks like a bumper crop of hot button documentaries, including the #MeToo docu On the Record by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, a film that takes on extraordinary relevance after Oprah Winfrey took her name off and was pressured by Russell Simmons, and while former Sundance king Harvey Weinstein is on trial for alleged sexual assault and faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars, where there will be no room for the 81 Oscars his films won.

ASSASSINS – Director: Ryan White. True crime meets global spy thriller in this gripping account of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of the North Korean leader. The film follows the trial of the two female assassins, probing the question: were the women trained killers or innocent pawns of North Korea? Section: Documentary Premieres. 1st Screening: Sunday, January 26, 11:30 AM at The Marc.

BAD HAIR – Director: Justin Simien. Cast: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Blair Underwood, Laverne Cox. 1989-set horror satire where an ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television. However, her flourishing career may come at a great cost when she realizes that her new hair may have a mind of its own. Section: Midnight. 1st Screening: Thursday, January 23rd, 9 PM at The Ray.

THE DISSIDENT Director: Bryan Fogel. When Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappears after entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, his fiancee and dissidents around the world are left to piece together the clues to a brutal murder and expose a global cover-up perpetrated by the very country he loved. Section: Documentary Premieres. 1st Screening: Friday, January 24, 2:30 PM at The Marc.

THE FIGHT – Director: Elyse Steinberg. Inside the ACLU, a team of scrappy lawyers battle Trump’s historic assault on civil liberties. Section: U.S. Documentary Competition. 1st Screening: Friday, January 25, 11:30 AM at The Marc.

FOUR GOOD DAYS – Director: Rodrigo Garcia. Cast: Glenn Close, Mila Kunis, Stephen Root, Joshua Leonard. Ten years of opioids have left Molly’s life in shambles. A new drug may give her a chance to break free if she is able to stay clean for four days, with the help of her mother Deb, a tough, clear-eyed woman. Their love will be tested to the limits. Section: Premieres. 1st Screening: Saturday, January 25, 6:30 PM at Eccles.

THE GLORIAS – Director: Julie Taymor. Cast: Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Bette Midler, Janelle Monae, Timothy Hutton, Lorraine Toussaint. An equal rights crusader, journalist and activist: Gloria Steinem embodies these and more. From her role in the revolutionary women’s rights movement to her travels throughout the U.S. and around the world, Steinem has made an everlasting mark on modern history. A nontraditional chronicle of a trailblazing life. Section: Premieres. 1st Screening: Sunday, January 26, noon at Eccles.

IRONBARK – Director: Dominic Cooke. Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley. True story of a British businessman unwittingly recruited into one of the greatest international conflicts in history. Forming an unlikely partnership with a Soviet officer hoping to prevent a nuclear confrontation, the two men work together to provide the crucial intelligence used to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Section: Premieres. 1st Screening: Friday, January 24, 6:30 PM at Eccles.

THE NEST – Director: Sean Durkin. Cast: Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Charlie Shotwell, Oona Roche. Charismatic entrepreneur Rory relocates his family to England with dreams of profiting from booming 1980s London. But as his wife, Allison, struggles to adapt, and the promise of a lucrative new beginning starts to unravel, the couple have to face the unwelcome truths lying beneath the surface of their marriage. Section: Premieres. 1st Screening: Sunday, January 26, 6:30 PM at Eccles.

NINE DAYS – Director: Edson Oda. Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgard, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl. In a house distant from the reality we know, a reclusive man interviews prospective candidates—personifications of human souls—for the privilege that he once had: to be born. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition. 1st Screening: Monday, January 27, 6:30 PM at Eccles.

SHIRLEY – Director: Josephine Decker. Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman. A young couple moves in with famed author Shirley Jackson and her Bennington College professor husband Stanley Hyman in the hope of starting a new life, but instead find themselves fodder for a psycho-drama that inspires Shirley’s next novel. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition. 1st Screening: Saturday, January 25, 12:15 PM at Eccles.

SYLVIE’S LOVE – Director: Eugene Ashe. Cast: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Eva Longoria, Aja Naomi King, Wendi Mclendon-Covey, Jemima Kirke. Years after their summer romance comes to an end, an aspiring television producer and a talented musician cross paths, only to find their feelings for each other never changed. With their careers taking them in different directions, they must choose what matters most. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition. 1st Screening – Monday, 27th – 12:15PM at Eccles.

ON THE RECORD – Director: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering. A brilliant former hip hop executive grapples with whether to go public about her rape by one of the most powerful men in the music industry. A gripping and profound examination of race, gender, intersectionality, and the toll sexual abuse takes on survivors and on society at large. Section: Documentary Premieres. 1st Screening: Saturday, January 25, 5:30 PM at The Marc.

SOME KIND OF HEAVEN – Director: Lance Oppenheim. Behind the gates of a palm tree-lined fantasyland, four residents of America’s largest retirement community, The Villages, FL, strive to find happiness and meaning. Section: NEXT. 1st Screening: Sunday, January 26, 11:30 AM at Prospector.

US KIDS – Director: Kim A. Snyder. Determined to turn unfathomable tragedy into action, the teenage survivors of Parkland, FL catalyze a powerful, unprecedented youth movement that spreads with lightning speed across the country, as a generation of mobilized youth take back democracy in this powerful coming-of-age story. Section: U.S. Documentary Competition. 1st Screening: Saturday, January 25, 11:30 AM at The Marc.

WE ARE FREESTYLE LOVE SUPREME – Director: Andrew Fried. Cast: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Anthony Veneziale, Christopher Jackson. Docu on the founding members of Freestyle Love Supreme, an improv hip-hop group that performed in the basement of Gotham’s Drama Bookshop in 2003. Covers the lives of the group members over subsequent years. Section: Special Events. 1st Screening: Tuesday, January 28, 2:30 PM at The Marc.

PALM SPRINGS – Director: Max Barbakow. Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Peter Gallagher. When carefree Nyles and reluctant maid of honor Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated the next morning when they find themselves unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition. 1st Screening: Sunday, January 26, 3 PM at Library Center.

WELCOME TO CHECHNYA – Director: David France. This searing investigative work shadows a group of activists risking unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom raging in the repressive and closed Russian republic. Unfettered access and a remarkable approach to protecting anonymity exposes this under-reported atrocity–and an extraordinary group of people confronting evil. Section: U.S. Documentary Competition. 1st Screening: Sunday, January 26th 2:30 PM at the Prospector Square Theatre.

WORTH – Director: Sara Colangelo. Cast: Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan, Tate Donovan, Talia Balsam, Laura Benanti. DC lawyer Kenneth Feinberg is appointed Special Master of the 9/11 Fund, fights off the cynicism, bureaucracy and politics associated with administering government funds and, in doing so, discovers what life is worth. Based on true events. Section: Premieres. 1st Screening: Friday, January 24, 9:45 PM at Eccles.

THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION Director: Radha Blank. Cast: Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin, Reed Birney, Imani Lewis, T.J. Atoms. A down-on-her-luck New York playwright decides to reinvent herself and salvage her artistic voice the only way she knows how: by becoming a rapper at age 40. Section: U.S. Dramatic Competition. 1st Screening: Saturday, January 25, 3 PM at Library.

FALLING – Director: Viggo Mortensen. Cast: Lance Henriksen, Viggo Mortensen, Terry Chen, Sverrir Gudnason, Hannah Gross, Laura Linney. When 80-year-old independent farmer Willis travels to Los Angeles for an indefinite stay with son John and his family, two very different worlds collide. Mentally declining, Willis’ abrasiveness is both caustic and funny, bringing old wounds from the past and years of mutual mistrust to the surface. Section: Premieres. 1st Screening: Friday, January 24, 9 AM at Park Avenue.

INTO THE DEEP – Director: Emma Sullivan. In 2016, a young Australian filmmaker began documenting amateur inventor Peter Madsen. One year in, Madsen brutally murdered Kim Wall aboard his homemade submarine. An unprecedented revelation of a killer and the journey his young helpers take as they reckon with their own complicity and prepare to testify. Section: World Cinema Documentary Competition. 1st Screening: Friday January 24, 9 PM at Park Avenue.

THE LAST SHIFT – Director: Andrew Cohn. Cast: Richard Jenkins, Shane Paul McGhie, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Birgundi Baker, Allison Tolman, Ed O’Neill. Aging aging fast food worker Stanley prepares to work his final graveyard shift after 38 years. When he’s asked to train his replacement, Jevon, Stanley’s weekend takes an unexpected turn. Section: Premieres. 1st Screening: Monday, January 27, 5 PM at The Marc.

TESLA – Director: Michael Almereyda. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Kyle Maclachlan, Eve Hewson, Jim Gaffigan, Hannah Gross, Josh Hamilton. Highlighting the Promethean struggles of Nikola Tesla, as he attempts to transcend entrenched technology–including his own previous work–by pioneering a system of wireless energy that will change the world. Section: Premieres. 1st Screening: Monday, January 27, 9 PM at PC Library.

UNCLE FRANK – Director: Alan Ball. Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale. In 1973, when 18-year-old Beth and her uncle Frank take a road trip from Manhattan to Creekville, SC for the family patriarch’s funeral, they’re unexpectedly joined by Frank’s lover Walid. A story about family, forgiveness and our inherent power to choose who we want to be. Section: Premieres. 1st Screening: Friday, January 24, 9:45 PM at Eccles.

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