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Sundance’s Second Virtual Festival Puts Art Films in an Online Bind

Blood

“Heartbreaking,” “disappointed,” “crushing”—those are just some of the ways that filmmakers described the news that the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was going entirely virtual for a second year in a row. While lots of producers, directors, and sales agents were counting on in-person presentations to elevate their premieres in the buzzy environment of Park City, the shift to online-only was particularly stinging for filmmakers and sellers with artier, cinematic, or more challenging films that may get lost amid the Netflixification of the festival.

“It’s a bummer,” admits Sam Green, director of opening night film 32 Sounds, which is described as a “live cinema” documentary that had been set to premiere simultaneously at Park City’s Egyptian Theatre and online. “The best way for people to see the film, and to sell it, is through a packed screening at the Egyptian,” says Green, who notes the film has equity investors looking to recoup and ICM representing the project for sales. “It’s hard to replace that with, ‘Hey, I’m going to send you a link.’”

For Green, who enjoys relating to a live audience as he did with his Kronos Quartet documentary A Thousand Thoughts, which toured performance spaces, he is now trying to remain hopeful that the new work, a collection of 32 audio experiences, will resonate with new media companies moving into spatial sound experiences such as Apple and Amazon.

Jason Ishikawa, a senior executive at sales outfit Cinetic Media, also acknowledges online screenings are “not an ideal experience” for some films.

At least one movie has already been pulled from this year’s Sundance lineup because of the shift to digital. On Monday, French sales outfit Wild Bunch yanked their zombie comedy Final Cut from a high-profile Premieres slot, because the company said they would prefer to unveil the film “in a theater with a live audience,” according to a press release.

While Wild Bunch is likely looking for a boisterous in-person premiere to uplift a crowdpleaser, artier films could suffer without the heightened cinematic experience of a darkened movie theater. For example, Jessica Beshir’s lyrical black-and-white documentary Fayi Dayi generated a muted response during last year’s virtual Sundance, even though it eventually sold to Janus Films and was recently shortlisted for an Academy Award. “It’s a tough film to sit through and watch at home,” admits Ishikawa, who represented the film. “But we always knew it was going to be a slow discovery and have its own life.”

For Ishikawa, a virtual Sundance can operate not that differently from an in-person one. Either way, he says, “You have to play the long game. Sometimes, a film hits their peak right away; but other times, it can happen at the end of a festival, during awards, or days later with a rave review or [New York Times critic] Manohla Dargis comes out of nowhere with an amazing paragraph about it, and that reengages the industry and people circle back to a movie.”

Press and social media reactions, however, function a bit differently in the streaming universe, and some filmmakers worry about the wide access that a virtual platform provides. While Sundance prides itself on expanding the reach of the festival to a wider and diverse online audience and press corps that might not have been able to afford a trip to Park City in previous years, there are also downsides to (over)exposing certain films to larger audiences online.

“The films that are hurt the most by this are the films that might have any sort of divisive content,” argues one industry insider. “There is no ability to build word-of-mouth with press. Everyone piles on immediately—[and] the press list is so massive that you get people that aren’t super sophisticated weighing in on films they might never have bothered to get tickets to at a normal in-person fest. Rotten Tomatoes scores can kill a film.”

Elika Portnoy, producer of last year’s Sundance competition film John and the Hole and this year’s competition entry Blood, concurs. “I think it kills the life of artistic movies,” she says. When John and the Hole premiered last year, she recalls, “We had hundreds of reviews rather than tens of reviews, and it felt like we were releasing the film commercially rather than at Sundance.” 

“It’s not the critics talking; it’s everybody,” she continues, concerned about this year’s launch of the Bradley Rust Gray-directed film. And with a title that could be misconstrued as horror, Portnoy is especially worried that genre sites will cover the film inaccurately. “We are trying to be very precise on how we’re describing the movie,” she says. According to Sundance’s catalogue description, “Blood explores the site where fragile love can emerge from immovable pain. With quiet restraint, fresh rhythm, and unforgettably rich performances, this subtle study of togetherness captures the vibrancy of internal life.” Adds Portnoy, “I hope that will help the right audience watch it.”

Alexis Garcia, an executive VP of Endeavor Content’s Film Group, says that “online access can galvanize a film” in a way that is “much more powerful and faster” than an in-person screening. On the other hand, there have been some years at Sundance where immediate film reactions shared on social media “can be damaging to or change a perception of a movie,” he adds, “so it’s not like [in-person screenings] are completely pristine.”

Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson argues that Sundance should not shield itself from a more diverse set of eyeballs. “The first thing to say is that the numbers we’re talking about are relatively small,” she says. (Sundance institutes viewing limits for each film.) “I also think we need to understand that in service of equity and making the most of different audiences and having different people write about films, there are going to be more perspectives, and that’s a good thing,” she adds. “I don’t think we can hold back the tide on that.”

“Our role is to show films that are going to have cultural, social, and political value that are cinematically strong and that audiences will respond to,” continues Jackson. “And sometimes, it doesn’t go as the film teams wished, and sometimes, it massively exceeds their expectations.”

For certain films, one could argue that a successful or tepid launch might be tied to the format in which it’s presented. Will audiences respond more strongly to cinematic Sundance films if they’re presented in movie theaters? Some sales companies and publicists are looking into holding physical screenings in New York or Los Angeles to try to capture that cinematic magic, though Omicron may get in the way.

But Sundance’s Jackson argues that strong films will still resonate virtually. She recalls seeing last year’s Sundance hit Summer of Soul as an online submission. “I was euphoric,” she says. “When I eventually saw it on the big screen, it was extraordinary, but it was also extraordinary the first time I saw it on a small screen, so it’s about degrees of dimensionality

“The good stuff will always rise to the top,” claims Kevin Iwashina, Senior VP, Documentary at Endeavor Content, which co-financed and co-produced the documentary 2nd Chance and the fiction competition drama Cha Cha Real Smooth. Whether online or in-person, Iwashina believes that commercial films “that activate audiences, like Summer of Soul last year, become very clear. Audiences decide, and if they respond, there’s value in it.”

Iwashina doesn’t disparage the screening link marketplace, either. “There’s an efficiency and accessibility that links allow, but it’s also about how to contextualize it and the strategies you put in place around a timed screening link to make it urgent,” he says.

After two years of online markets and the dominance of VOD, Iwashina also suggests that buyers and sellers have moved beyond the theatrical premiere. “Previously, it was about one medium: You invite 12 buyers to a screening room, and that was that. Now, there is much more thought as to how content gets presented to the marketplace and there are more buyers, in more mediums, who are relying as much on hard data as their own emotional response to make a decision.”

In the new digital economy, it seems, a standing ovation at Sundance may be less meaningful than any buyer’s given algorithm.

Some filmmakers seem to be more accepting of that fact. 

While Sara Archambault, a producer of Sierra Pettengill’s NEXT section documentary Riotsville, USA, acknowledges that “many filmmakers create with a cinematic experience in mind. After almost two years of watching things almost exclusively on small screens, we need to confront the fact that most audiences are not engaging with films this way.”

“I’m sad for theaters,” Archambault continues. “But I trust that today’s audiences are sophisticated viewers, and could grow even more so if the films available to them online were representing the full breadth of the incredible artistry we all know is available.”

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