Culture / Entertainment

Record Attendance, a Record $25 Million Apple Buy — How a Virtual Sundance Defied the Odds

Movie Time

BY // 02.10.21

The Sundance Film Festival’s abbreviated and mostly virtual format left quite an impression. Some of us longtime reviewers doubted whether this year’s COVID festival would still yield the kind of blockbuster films previous years had. There were also concerns over whether fans would attend virtually, but no one should have worried.

Sundance released its attendance records this week. This new look 2021 Sundance racked up more than 600,000 views in its virtual format, almost three times the 2020 festival’s live attendance in Park City.

More than just a film lover’s venue, Park City also become a buyers and sellers market. It’s where most of Hollywood decamps during Sundance and fast and furious negotiations take place. This market was, of course, also virtual this year and deals are taking a little longer to negotiate.

Still, a number of outstanding films — including two potential Oscar contenders — already have been gobbled up.

Apple’s $25 Million Sundance Play

CODA, the dramedy about a teenage daughter of deaf parents running a fishing business captivated audiences and won more awards (audience, directing and grand jury) than any recent film at Sundance. It also drew a fierce bidding war, with Apple acquiring the film for $25 million, the highest price ever paid for a Sundance film.

This hefty price tag will either predict a future Oscar nod or perpetuate the curse of prior films that have been beloved at Sundance by largely ignored by the moviegoing public. Remember Brittany Runs A Marathon? It was the toast of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, but bombed at the box office.

SHOP DE BEERS

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I predict CODA will not bomb. Expect Apple to stream the movie this summer, and hopefully break the curse.

Summer of Soul (or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s music and historical documentary on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and its political and cultural significance for African American history, captured both the audience and grand jury award for best documentary. This emotional and moving film, with music that will make you sing and dance your way through it, will be on Netflix later this year.

Robin Wright’s Moment

Land stars Robin Wright, who makes her directorial debut in this sparse film about grief and isolation. Wright plays Edie, a woman who has lost her husband and son. She deals with her grief by exiling herself to a remote dilapidated (actually uninhabitable) mountain cabin, disposing of her car and phone to live off the land.

Robin Wright in Land
Robin Wright in Land

Isolation does not work well for her and there is lots of angst and suffering. This is a movie of few words with much depending on nuance and acting. As much as I admire Wright as an actor, films with limited dialogue with bad conditions deteriorating to worse are not my cup of tea. But you can judge for yourself as the film, which garnered generally good reviews, will open in theaters this Friday, February 12.

Documentary Life

Life in a Day  is a breathtaking, beautifully filmed, mesmerizing documentary from Kevin MacDonald and Ridley Scott (of Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise fame), that puts a time stamp on the shared human experience for one day: July 25, 2020. Using more than 300,000 video submissions in 65 languages from 192 countries, MacDonald and Scott skillfully and poignantly stitch together a 90-minute video diary, which was introduced on YouTube this week.

The movie begins with the ritual of giving birth and quickly moves on to making a living, farming the land, caring for children, illness, social unrest, relationships and death. It’s inspiring, sad, happy, hopeless and hopeful, and confirms the shared human condition of life seen through a global lens.

In the Same Breath isn’t the first documentary about COVID-19, but it is perhaps the most personal and emotionally jarring. Award-winning filmmaker Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation), who hails from Wuhan, China, left her husband and son in China to return to the United States the day that Wuhan went into lockdown.

Her film stunningly documents the cover-up perpetrated by the Chinese government as the virus spun out of control, using on the ground footage and firsthand accounts. She also documents the initial U.S. response and misinformation in the early days of the pandemic.

This is a disturbing yet compelling film that shows China in the worst possible light. HBO financed and acquired rights to the film early in its production, which surprised many given that China is such a huge entertainment market. Expect to see In the Same Breath on HBOMax this spring.

Jane Howze is managing director of  The Alexander Group, a Houston headquartered national executive search firm. This is her 12th year covering the Sundance Film Festival . 

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