Sundance Market Preview: Strike Fallout Hits Park City

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Film lovers, buyers and sellers will drop into the snowy wilds of Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, marking the 40th edition of the landmark event for independent film. But it arrives as the industry is still feeling the impact from the dual Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023, leading to fewer films and more demand.

“It’s an equal opportunity problem across the theatrical festival slates — fewer movies overall,” Bleecker Street’s President of Acquisitions and Ancillary Distributions head Kent Sanderson told TheWrap.

The issue isn’t new this year, since several high profile features — like Anne Hathaway’s “Eileen” and the Chiwetel Ejiofor/Emilia Clarke sci-fi drama “The Pod Generation”— failed to get buyers immediately last year’s Sundance though did eventually get sold. And festivals geared towards later in the year, specifically Toronto and Telluride, saw fewer deals being made as the strike wore on, seemingly endlessly.

This year the festival is premiering 91 features, an 18% decrease from last year where 111 films were shown according to the festival, even though Sundance received a record number of submissions — 17,435 — from 153 countries or territories, including 4,410 feature-length films, Sundance programmers told TheWrap.

TheWrap spoke to Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente, Film Festival Director Eugene Hernandez and Director of Programming Kim Yutani for this piece.

Several insiders said that small number seemed to be indicative of the strike’s fallout. The submissions period for Sundance runs from June to the fall and, as Sanderson said, some movies that were intended to premiere at the festival weren’t finished in time. At least two films playing the festival pre-screenings weren’t possible because the films were still in post-production.

And as filmmakers rush to get their films finished, buyers whose 2024 lineups were affected by the strike will be the ones more desperate for content. “There’s a lot of buyers, especially the ones that don’t have their own production slates, that need projects,” said 2AM founder Christine D’Souza Gelb.

Steven Soderbergh’s much-anticipated film “Presence” will premiere at Sundance. (Getty)
Steven Soderbergh’s much-anticipated film “Presence” will premiere at Sundance. (Getty)

“Some of our competitors and friends have a real need for film and product, so I don’t know if they’re going to be more bullish or not,” an acquisitions head for a major studio said on background. “The streamers have… pulled out of the indie scene for a large part, except for a couple of big plays last year on more commercial titles.”

The acquisitions head added: “The ones that you think are going to be marquee, you’re guessing, out of hope, on a logline and an interesting new filmmaker or you’re scratching your head thinking, ‘Why did Steven Soderbergh suddenly self-finance?’ That’s unusual for something like that to be in the marketplace … no one really knows what to make of it.”

Soderbergh’s film “Presence,” starring Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan and Julia Fox, will be at the festival. The psychological thriller is about a family that discovers they are not alone when they move into a new house.

But several people who spoke to TheWrap felt that even a need for content might not be enough considering that most of the more star-studded features at this year’s festival have already been acquired prior to the fest. Those include the Sebastian Stan-starring film “A Different Man,” which A24 purchased, and Richard Linklater’s Glen Powell-fronted action rom-com “Hit Man,” which Netflix acquired.

There’s a severe lack of “marquee titles,” according to the acquisitions head. “There are slightly fewer obvious big acquisition targets,” said Sanderson. “In terms of the classic Sundance [movie], whether it’s a John Carney movie or a ‘CODA,’ something that commands that big worldwide deal.”

Jesse Eisenberg has two films at Sundance, “A Real Pain,” which he directed, and Nathan Zellner’s “Sasquatch Sunset,” in which he stars. (Getty)
Jesse Eisenberg has two films at Sundance, “A Real Pain,” which he directed, and Nathan Zellner’s “Sasquatch Sunset,” in which he stars. (Getty)

That big worldwide deal Sanderson is talking about might be hard to come by. “No one can afford to have FOMO anymore or get into these crazy, altitude-driven bidding wars because the market is so dire you cannot make a big mistake,” said the acquisitions head, citing films like Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for in 2016 and grossed $18.6 million domestically, as well as the 2019 Gurinder Chada film “Blinded by the Light.” New Line purchased the latter at Sundance for $15 million only to see it gross $12 million at the box office. “People have become more thoughtful on the sales and buyer’s side,” said D’Souza Gelb.

On Tuesday, “Magazine Dreams,” the story of an aspiring bodybuilder starring Jonathan Majors, which Disney’s Searchlight Pictures acquired at last year’s Sundance (where it won the Sundance Jury Award for Creative Vision), was dropped by the studio because of Majors’ ongoing legal troubles. He was found guilty last month of assaulting a woman in New York City.

The newly cautious attitude is coupled with a need for content to play well in a theatrical setting, first and foremost, a fact only enhanced by this summer’s “Barbenheimer” event.

“We’re looking for things that ideally would have some kind of theatrical potential,” said Audrey Delaney, SVP, Distribution and Worldwide Marketing, for Blue Fox Entertainment. “It’s got to stand out in some way, whether on a cast or director level, or just subject matter.”

That being said, there are titles to definitely keep an eye open for.

Steven Soderbergh’s “Presence” is probably the buzziest of the festival considering the director’s pedigree and his 1989 directorial debut, “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” remains one of the most famous Sundance premieres. Others include the pair of Jesse Eisenberg features: “A Real Pain,” which Eisenberg directed, and Davi and Nathan Zellner’s “Sasquatch Sunset.” Also cited were the Kristen Stewart/Steven Yeun-starring “Love Me,” as well as Sean Wang’s “Didi.”

While it does seem shakier than usual, Sundance’s impact as a festival with quality content remains undiminished, even in its 40th year.

“The greatest filmmakers working today got their start going through the [Sundance] labs … debuting at Sundance, from Tarantino all the way through Ryan Coogler,” said D’Souza Gelb. Here’s to another 40 years of Sundance.

Umberto Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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