When Joana Vicente was a producer and later an independent film executive, she would take her young children with her to Sundance so they could learn to ski while she saw the latest movies. The plane trip from New York City to Utah was always a festive occasion, as artists and executives greeted each other and talked excitedly about that year’s lineup. But it gave her children a false sense of what air travel is really like. On a subsequent vacation, Vicente’s son had a question for his mother.
“My son was surprised that we didn’t know anyone on the plane,” remembers Vicente. “He was so used to what happened when we went to Sundance. And the plane is where the conversation starts. Where there’s a sense of a community coming together with expectation and excitement about seeing what’s new and what’s going to rattle you.”
For the past two years, those kinds of in-flight reunions haven’t been taking place, at least not on journeys to Sundance. The festival has been forced to go virtual for the previous two editions as a concession to COVID. In 2023, despite a new subvariant and chatter about a “tripledemic” involving not just COVID, but also RSV and the flu, Sundance is finally returning in-person. It is the last of the major film festivals to do so, and its revival comes with Vicente at the helm, having been named CEO of the Sundance Institute in 2021.
“We’ve missed being together,” says Vicente. “There are things that can’t be replicated in virtual festivals in terms of the conversations you have waiting for a film to start or the connections you make while you’re waiting to pay for a coffee or taking the shuttle to a screening.”
But as the independent film industry prepares to make the trek up the mountain for a week and a half of screenings and panels, it is seeking a sense of community at a time when the business that pays for this art form is mired in a depression. Movies, particularly those aimed at adults, have struggled at the box office, with critical favorites such as “The Fabelmans,” “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Tár” failing to attract crowds. Indie film executives insist they aren’t giving up, and point to the success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a twisty multiverse caper that made more than $100 million globally, as evidence that audiences will still show up to watch off-beat stories that are told well.
“It’s not that audiences aren’t coming out, it’s just that the people who are showing up may be different and the kind of movies that appeal to them may have changed,” says Arianna Bocco, president of IFC Films. “It’s more of a ‘smart house’ crowd, one that’s younger than the traditional arthouse audience of over 50. But I don’t think the content we’re making has caught up with that.”
At the same time, many of the streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, who once inflated prices for indie films through bidding wars, are engaging in rounds of cost-cutting and layoffs as they look ahead to a possible recession. For agents looking to command the highest prices, will that mean they’ll need to settle for less in an era of economizing? Outwardly at least, they are projecting an air of business as usual. The thirst for content and the need to keep attracting customers and retaining those who sign up will leave these services with no choice but to keep spending, they argue.
“If you hooked the seven streamers up to a polygraph, they’d probably admit that their content budgets are close to an aggregate of $120 billion,” says John Sloss, a veteran manager, agent and the founder of Cinetic Media. “Obviously, that’s not spent entirely on Sundance movies, but that’s a lot of money.”
The Sundance that welcomes filmmakers and studio executives this year has not exactly been preserved in amber. Festival organizers have used the gap to make some changes. Gone are the secret screenings that in years past attracted such incongruous major studio offerings as the forgettable Taron Egerton dramedy “Eddie the Eagle” and the sci-fi debacle “Jupiter Ascending.” Moreover, fewer films will show in fewer Park City venues (Sundance has shed two theaters, the Marc and the Temple). It has also added a theater in nearby Salt Lake City as a way of expanding its reach beyond the affluent base of film fans who have the means to travel to the ritzy ski town where Sundance has traditionally unfolded.
More controversially, the festival has opted to retain a virtual component. The bulk of the movies at Sundance will screen through the festival’s online hub as early as 24 hours after they premiere. Some sales agents are unhappy with the decision, believing it will make it more difficult to generate excitement around their films.
“At the end of the day, hopefully Sundance recognizes the needs of the market and the importance of getting buyers to attend,” Sloss says. “If films premiere virtually the day after, you’re going to lose three-fourths of your buyers in the audience.”
Josh Braun, the co-founder of Submarine Entertainment, a production and sales company behind previous Sundance films such as “Boys Town” and “The Cove,” agrees.
“I can live with it, but I don’t love it,” he says. “You can’t replicate the feeling that happens when you have a room full of buyers seeing and feeling how an audience of real people is going to react to a film.”
But it’s also true that in pre-COVID times there was something about the thin mountain air that could leave studios making rash, even costly mistakes. Plenty of films such as “Blinded by the Light” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” got a rapturous response from festivalgoers and captured big deals only to bomb at the box office. Some studio executives are hoping that negotiations for movies can take place in a more sedate atmosphere, and would like to see an end to the all-night bidding wars that once captivated the festival.
“Before COVID, you’d go to these giant mansions that were occupied by sales agents where you were invited in the middle of the night to screen movies in basements,” says Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics. “I don’t miss those viewing conditions.”
For its part, Sundance says it has heard the concerns of sales agents, but believes that there needs to be a role for virtual screenings in the festivals of the future. To alleviate concerns, the festival has allowed films to opt out of a virtual component — but more than 80 films will be made available digitally to passholders.
“We want every film to be covered, every film to be reviewed, so this gives us an opportunity to have more people at the table and have more people part of the conversation,” says Vicente.
For the filmmakers who flock to Sundance, nothing compares to the anxiety and excitement of screening their latest work in a full house of movie lovers. They’re coming back, armed with COVID tests, eager to rejoin a community that’s been strained by business struggles, production challenges and prolonged separation. For director Justin Chon, this will be his third time premiering a film at Sundance. He’s been here before with 2017’s “Gook” and 2019’s “Ms. Purple” and he’s back in 2023 with “Jamojaya,” a family drama about an up-and-coming Indonesian rapper.
“I’m just so damned relieved and excited that Sundance is back in person,” says Chon. “That’s why I made this film. I want to share it with an audience and there’s nothing that can replicate the kind of communal experience you get at a place like Sundance.”