Programmers on the ups and downs of the online festival, expanding the appetite of buyers


“Let’s keep moving forward” sun dance Director of the film festival Tabitha Jackson said Thursday amid the virtual opening day press conference of the nearly 40-year-old event.

The phrase was meant as a transition, but naturally took on a bigger meaning for the world’s premier independent festival, which was forced to cancel its live Park City leg a fortnight ago due to the surge in ‘Omicron: Let’s deal with it now and keep waving the flag for independent cinema.

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(LR) Tabitha Jackson and Kim Yutani - Credit: Sundance

(LR) Tabitha Jackson and Kim Yutani – Credit: Sundance

sun dance

With an introduction by new Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente, Jackson was joined by fellow programmers – director Kim Yutani; Chief Curator, New Frontier Shari Frilot; and Senior Programmer and Director of Strategic Initiatives John Nein – the essence of the 2022 presser was to convey that there is only one way forward as the festival moves online for a second straight year . And it’s done.

“‘Pivot’ is a trigger word for all of our staff,” said Jackson, who continues to emphasize that Sundance will remain a form of hybrid festival going forward even as the pandemic subsides, after the virtual edition of the last year drew 600,000 viewers.

Many notable global film festivals came back to life last year during the pandemic, including Cannes, Venice, Telluride and Toronto, as did the upcoming Berlin Film Festival, so it’s with a frown that we see Sundance withdraw due to the pandemic.

More than the filmmakers selling their wares at Sundance, those really feeling the burn here with an online edition are the communities of Park City and Salt Lake City, who reap the economic benefits of the festival. In 2020, the latest live version of sun dance contributed $135 million to the state of Utah, generated more than 2,700 jobs, and generated $17.8 million in state and local tax revenue.

The maneuver away from an in-person event comes at a time when independent filmmaking is already hobbled, eroded by streamers with blank checks snapping up auteur works and moving them to home debuts. It’s a market of survival of the fittest that leaves theatrical distributors able to drop the talks or choose less flashy titles. However, the sole bargaining chip of feature film distributors for filmmakers is the guarantee of a genuine cinematographic window, potentially national. Unlike the 2019 in-person Sundance where we saw Amazon go on a buying spree (led with its pickup of Late at night for $13 million), last year’s online edition largely revolved around four notable acquisitions: Apple’s $25 million buyout of CODA, The $15 million purchase by Netflix Who passed, Sony Pictures Classics taking Jockey and Searchlight the documentary The summer of the soul.

“We’re not chasing the market, we’re hoping to broaden its appetite,” Yutani said of how Sundance is responding to the indie market, a market in which producers must be agnostic about future platforms for their films.

“We want all elements of our ecosystem to thrive,” she added, citing how the festival received a windfall of submissions for the 2022 edition despite filmmakers’ challenges making films in the age of Covid. .

Representation remains golden for Sundance. Says Frilot this year: “I really continue to turn to indigenous work. Thirty percent of the lineup this year is indigenous, and it’s really exciting and it’s right on time, and it resonates with some of the films that we had at the festival, in terms of kind of a vision that we have really need to hear properly now.”

“We don’t program to themes, but we listen to the work we get,” Yutani said of the programming. “We put work responsibly into conversations; the films speak to each other, they speak to the cultural moment and to the public.

Yutani highlighted films on the environment, climate politics and films on reproductive rights, i.e. The Janes and Call Joan, as well as the French film The event.

“Call Jane” - Credit: Sundance

“Call Jane” – Credit: Sundance

sun dance

Documentary by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes The Janes follows how police raided a Chicago South Side apartment in the spring of 1972, with seven women arrested. The defendants were part of an underground network, having set up an underground service for women seeking safe, affordable and illegal abortions. They were called JANE. Phyllis Nagy’s film Call Jane starring Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina and Kate Mara is the feature film subject of this documentary, but following the subway in Chicago 1968.

Going from the live festival to fully online was both “very difficult” and “very easy”, according to Jackson.

“The Janes”  - Credit: Sundance

“The Janes” – Credit: Sundance

sun dance

Before Christmas, many entertainment industry events were already canceling or postponing their January and February dates due to Omicron. Sundance, however, remained hopeful of sticking to the schedule, and implemented reduced theater capacities and on-site testing policies for staff members and key festival attendees, among other safety protocols.

“Once we had the data on the public health implications of the festival taking place in Park City with the level of transmission from Omicron and the local infrastructure impacts, it was very easy with that data and with the processes we had in place to know that it would be irresponsible to continue in person,” Jackson explained.

“Also (it was) very easy because we designed the festival to be hybrid, so the online component already existed,” she added.

“(It was) very difficult because of our disappointment at not being able to be back in Park City, to fully experience the festival and to be in person with our community,” she continued. “And very hard because making these changes, living in this uncertainty and living through the last two years of the pandemic is expensive.”

“But here we are on the first day of the festival with all the work ahead of us and a community around us, and you know what?” Jackson continued. “It feels good.”

“The worst person in the world” - Credit: Montclair Film Festival

“The worst person in the world” – Credit: Montclair Film Festival

Montclair Film Festival

Headlines from opening day at Sundance today include Emergency, Love Fire, Fresh, La Guerra Civil, A Love Song, Marte Um (Mars One), The Princess, Tantura, When You’re Done Saving The Worldand The worst person in the world.

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