Culture / Entertainment

Sundance Taps Into Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton, Lin-Manuel Miranda and More for Mountain Town Movie Magic

Most Diverse Film Fest Yet More Relevant Than Ever

BY // 01.23.20

PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival, the granddaddy of independent cinema, kicked off Thursday in this mountain town of 10,000 minus Robert Redford and the annual opening day press conference. A planned community bonfire, new virtual reality and interactive activities, music for every taste and of course the movies, did make it.

Over the next 10 days, attendees can select from 118 feature length dramatic and documentary films, and 74 short films culled from a record 15,100 submissions. There are special premieres, edgy innovative storytelling, virtual reality installations and performances and even a children’s program. This is Sundance’s most diverse lineup with 27 countries represented. And 46 percent of its directors are women, 38 percent are people of color and 12 percent are LGBTQ+.

There are panels (Hillary Clinton, Kerry Washington and Lin-Manuel Miranda this year) and filmmakers discussing the creative process and lots of live music events. All of this takes place on Park City’s Main Street and at theaters, a Jewish temple, school auditoriums, hotel ballrooms, a conference facility and tennis clubs scattered throughout Park City. Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort, each located about 30 miles from Park City, also screen films.

The choices are endless and it can get a little overwhelming trying to take in all the activities. But there is no more exciting or buzzier place to be as virtually all of the Hollywood, New York and technology companies invade this mountain town of 10,000 which swells to 120,000 over the Festival’s 10 day run.

I have covered Sundance for the last 11 years. The opening day press conference held in the historic Egyptian Theater on Park City’s Main Street featuring Festival founder Robert Redford was a thrill. Redford used the platform to discuss and answer questions about themes and trends to expect at each year’s Festival as well as his thoughts on world issues.  He was wise, accessible, modest, funny and downright inspirational.

Last year, Redford announced he no longer needed to be the face of the Festival and left the press conference after 90 seconds. This year, Sundance dispensed with the press conference and instead provided a virtual press packet with a perfunctory welcoming letter from Redford. Clearly Sundance’s focus is on its future and mission of promoting the independent filmmaker.

Change is inevitable and of course the show must go. For me a press packet without the real time sound and dynamism of the human voice was a letdown.

The Glorias – Julianne Moore plays Gloria Steinem in “The Glorias”
Julianne Moore appears in The Glorias at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Daniel McFadden/Sundance Institute

This year’s Festival theme, Imagined Futures, contemplates creating a synergy among the diverse group of independent filmmakers for new possibilities and perspectives “at a time when fresh thinking and bolder ideas and more connected dialogue are urgently needed ” says Keri Putnam, Sundance Institute’s executive director.

John Cooper, outgoing programming director, notes that “Sundance 2020 hopes to be a celebration of artists and their art as well as the community that gathers each year to support independent artists.” Thematically this year’s Festival carries a backdrop of families, both biological and chosen, the concept of home (pro and con) and the ability of individuals to make real change in the world.

Sundance’s Documentary Power

In the early years of Sundance, my movie slate was mostly documentaries because they were not shown in movie theaters. Today Netflix, Amazon and other streaming companies are aggressively competing for product which has proved to be a huge boon to documentary film makers and to those of us who love documentaries. Based of the success of Sundance documentaries for Oscar nominations, I expect some of the most aggressive bidding wars to focus on documentaries

Many of this year’s documentaries focus on current events and world relating to climate change, voter oppression, immigration and school shootings. The Dissident investigating the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi will be playing to a sold-out crowd and is generating lots of buzz.

Other interesting documentaries include one about Lance Armstrong, a four hour HULU produced documentary on Hillary Clinton and an examination of the life and death of legendary movie star Natalie Wood. The creators of the highly acclaimed 2016 documentary Weiner a fly on the wall expose of disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner are back with The Fight which is a behind the scenes look at the American Civil Liberties Union since Donald Trump was elected.

There is always some film that generates controversy at Sundance. In prior years it was the no-holds documentaries on Michael Jackson, the story of Donald Trump’s unlikely victory, the cult of Scientology and an innocuous documentary on Dick Cheney. This year it is the film On The Record,  which exposes sexual harassment in the music industry. Originally backed by Apple and Oprah Winfrey, the film focuses much of its attention on music producer Russell Simmons who is alleged to have raped four women.

After he publicly appealed to Winfrey she resigned as executive producer 10 days before Sundance while stating, “I unequivocally believe the accusers.”

Movie Drama

The quality of documentaries is better and more predictable than the Sundance dramas. However, who can forget Sundance break out hits Little Miss Sunshine and Sex, Lies and Videotape? And  more recently the 2014 sleeper film Whiplash went on to earn five Academy Award nominations with J. K. Simmons taking home the golden statue for Best Supporting Actor. One of my favorite films of all time, I‘ll See You in My Dreams with Blythe Danner, premiered at Sundance and was touted as Oscar worthy yet without a big studio’s marketing arm lost its steam.

Last year Sundance audiences raved about the comedy Late Night starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling as women on a late night talk show. A feverish bidding war took place with Amazon acquiring the film for more than $10 million. Back home movie audiences gave the film a “ho-hum”and it struggled to break even.

I have seen some of the best and worst movies of my life at Sundance. All of this is to say that Sundance feature films are like a box of chocolates: Who knows what you will get?

Some of the feature films that are being talked about as potential acquisitions include Shirley a dramatic thriller starring Elisabeth Moss as a horror writer; Sundance veteran Miranda July making her first return to Sundance since 2011 in Kajillionaire, a story featuring Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as con artists whose daughter (Evan Rachel Wood)  embroils herself in one of their heists and Tesla starring Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla as he pioneers a system of wireless energy that will change the world.

Sundance Celebs

Of course there are stars at Sundance — lots of stars. Taylor Swift is expected to attend Sundance’s opening night film Miss Americana, which follows the pop star over a two year period as she establishes a voice as more than a singer/songwriter. Rachel Brosnahan is making her Sundance debut as a CIA operative in the political drama Ironbark  with Benedict Cumberbatch as co-star.

Taylor Swift: Miss Americana – Still 11
Taylor Swift: Miss Americana an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Is one of opening night films. Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute programs.

Other anticipated films include Four Good Days starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis as an estranged mother and her addict daughter; The Glorias featuring Oscar winners Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander  as two of the four actors playing activist Gloria Steinem at different ages; Michael Keaton as a Washington  attorney responsible for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund in Worth and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Farrell testing their black comedy chops in Downhill, the story of a family buried by an avalanche and how they respond to its aftermath (There are lots of jokes about premiering a film about an avalanche in a mountain town surrounded by mountains).

Downhill –
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrel appear in Downhill an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Show Time

Putnam spoke of Sundance as a platform for independent, authentic, independent storytelling. She quoted Lin-Manuel Miranda, as saying “what artists can do is bring stories to the table that, once you have heard them, won’t let you return to what you thought before.”

“We hope this Festival will do just that,” Putnam says.

Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm headquartered in Houston with offices in New York, San Francisco and San Diego. For more on Jane’s daily Sundance adventures check out her Twitter and Instagram feeds.

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