Nepotism babies took over Sundance Film Festival 2023. Maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Discourse about nepo babies in Hollywood isn't going away. Neither are the nepo babies themselves.
The term "nepotism babies" has been a hot topic in pop culture as of late, especially following a New York magazine and Vulture story that slapped the faces of Dakota Johnson, Zoë Kravitz, Jaden Smith and more children of Hollywood celebrities onto babies' bodies. It sparked jokes and debates about whether they deserve to be in the industry, and a custom "nepo baby" T-shirt worn by Hailey Bieber sent social media into a frenzy.
At the just-ended 2023 Sundance Film Festival, several of this year's buzziest movies were the work of Hollywood offspring, seemingly flying in the face of the event's long-held mission of introducing audiences to the work of independent filmmakers.
It isn't the first time nepo babies have stood center stage at the festival: Just last year, Dakota Johnson starred in "Cha Cha Real Smooth," which won the U.S. dramatic audience award. But conversation about nepotism in show business is at an all-time high right now, prompting a public evaluation of the advantages artists face in nearly every corner of the industry – Sundance included.
"There's a responsibility with privilege, especially in Hollywood, to recognize that the space you take up does deprive others the opportunities of being able to do the same thing," says Kolby Mac, a film critic for the Minorities Report website and a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Nepo babies "aren't doing anything implicitly wrong, but what are you doing in addition to combat the privilege you have by carving out opportunities for those that don't have a Jane Campion as a mom or don't have a Tom Hanks as their dad?"
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When Robert Redford co-founded Sundance Film Festival in 1978, the mission was to "uplift marginalized storytellers, and particularly indigenous storytellers that were not then finding a place in American cinema," says Dylan Nelson, a documentary filmmaker and associate film professor at Colorado College.
Forty-five years later, that's still largely the case and Sundance has helped a diverse array of successful filmmakers get mainstream recognition.
This year, a number of films arrived at the festival already attached to notable studios and streaming sites. Some were also created by or starred well-known Hollywood figures. And some of those figures are nepo babies.
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This year's lineup of nepo baby-backed films included:
"Bad Behaviour," written and directed by Alice Englert (daughter of Oscar-winning director and writer Jane Campion).
"Infinity Pool," starring Alexander Skarsgård (son of actor Stellan Skarsgård) and directed by Brandon Cronenberg (son of writer and director David Cronenberg).
"Flora and Son," starring Eve Hewson (daughter of U2's Bono).
"Theater Camp," starring and co-written by Ben Platt (son of producer Mark Platt) and starring, co-directed and co-written by Molly Gordon (daughter of director Bryan Gordon and writer Jessie Nelson).
"The Disappearance of Shere Hite," narrated by Johnson (daughter of actors Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson).
"Landscape With Invisible Hand," featuring Michael Gandolfini (son of actor James Gandolfini and producer Marcy Wudarski).
What are Sundance nepo babies saying?
"I struggled daily with insecurities and desperately trying to find a reason why I don't deserve a job," Alexander Skarsgård told The Wrap at Sundance of being conscious of building his career off the success of his father's. "And then to go to 'it's because my dad's an actor' is very easy. It's very convenient. I'm only here because Dad got me this job. So after 20 years in the industry, I still thank my dad for every single job I get."
"So it's emotional masochism for you," Brandon Cronenberg joked to him.
Hewson told The Associated Press she thought the New York magazine article "kind of missed the mark," though the concept is "true in every industry and it's like a much bigger conversation."
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Sundance, like the rest of Hollywood, is fundamentally "not an even playing field," says Nelson.
"It certainly helps if you have connections in the business already, whether or not it's your parents," she adds. "Star power is really important in gaining financing, legitimacy and audiences for independent films, so it's a mutual relationship."
While having a famous name connected to a film can help turn heads, there's still the matter of making a film good enough to keep viewers in their seats.
"If (a film) is driven by fantastic storytelling, we can almost gloss over those things," Mac says. "But when it's mediocre or just not satisfying, it sticks out like a sore thumb."
Mac adds: "Employing a person of privilege who is coming from some kind of access to the industry is not a bad thing. It's really a matter of how you use that privilege to be able to carve out access and give up some of your power. … What they do with it matters so much more."
Take "The Disappearance of Shere Hite," a documentary about the titular sex writer and researcher. Johnson voiced Hite, and in doing so, drummed up greater publicity for the film than it would have had with an unknown voice actor. That's the ultimate power of nepo babies and celebrities at Sundance, Nelson says: Bringing attention to the festival at a whole, which in turn highlights everyone involved.
"It's the attention… that the glitz and the glamour bring that actually funds the true mission of Sundance, which genuinely is to lift marginalized filmmakers," Nelson says.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nepo babies took over Sundance 2023. But was that such a bad thing?