Parties and politics at the Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival is where luminaries from the worlds of art, commerce, and politics meet over collagen-infused cocktails to talk about movies.

THE FABLED Sundance Film Festival in Utah.  (photo credit: LAURI DONAHUE)
THE FABLED Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
(photo credit: LAURI DONAHUE)
PARK CITY, UTAH – The Sundance Film Festival is where luminaries from the worlds of art, commerce, and politics meet over collagen-infused cocktails to talk about movies.
High-profile guests this year include Hillary Clinton (the subject of a four-part documentary premiering on Hulu, March 6), Chinese artist-dissident Ai Weiwei, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton).
While 96% of the 1,200 highest-grossing Hollywood films of the last decade were directed by men, Sundance prides itself on supporting diverse filmmakers. Women directed 48% of the 118 features at the Festival this year.
Panels at the Festival encourage filmmakers to realistically represent issues like climate change, abortion rights, and the lives of the disabled. Before each film screening, a taped statement gives thanks to the Ute Tribal Nation, the ancestral keepers of the land on which the Festival takes place.
But in addition to its high-minded ideals, Sundance is also (of course) known for parties and glamour.
Party Central
This year’s Festival lasted for eleven days, from January 23 to February 2. Like many Hollywood careers, it peaks quickly and fades away slowly.
During the first weekend of the Festival, Main Street in Park City, Utah is lined with lounges promoting brands, movies and social causes.
Paparazzi and selfie-takers throng the intersection of Main and Heber, where celebrities cross the street from the IndieWire/Dropbox studio to the AT&T/WarnerMedia Lodge. Star-sightings can be detected from afar via the howls of delight that go up from the crowd.
Sundance lounges, and the parties that fill them at night, run on a rigid caste system. Some are open to the public, while others are open only to holders of Sundance credentials ($300 and up). Many parties are invitation-only. If you’re not already an A-lister, for $500 you can hire a “party specialist” who promises to get you into “elite events and gifting suites.”
Chabad Park City and dozens of other Jewish and Israeli partners co-sponsor a kosher, unplugged, Festival Shabbat Dinner and Lounge.
By the first Monday of the Festival, the crowds thin and many celebrities head back to Hollywood as the Main Street lounges revert to their prior roles as art galleries and pizza parlors.
Sundance is a marketplace where independent films are shown to potential buyers: movie studios, distributors and (increasingly) streaming services like Amazon and Netflix.
Many hit films and Oscar-winners have launched at Sundance, including (as the Festival website notes):
Sorry to Bother You, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Eighth Grade, Get Out, The Big Sick, Mudbound, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale Station, Whiplash, Brooklyn, Precious, The Cove, Little Miss Sunshine, An Inconvenient Truth, Napoleon Dynamite, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Reservoir Dogs and sex, lies, and videotape.
Last year, Amazon paid $13 million for the US rights to Late Night with Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson and $14 m. for The Report with Adam Driver. A24 paid $6 m. for The Farewell, starring Awkwafina.
But Sundance buzz doesn’t always translate into awards or box-office success.
Late Night earned only $15 m. in the US. The Farewell earned $19 m. worldwide (and a Golden Globe for Awkwafina). Despite strong reviews, The Report earned only $232 thousand in theaters in a limited release.
As the Los Angeles Times noted, buyers may be more cautious this year after last year’s flops.
Coming Soon
Here are some of the Sundance premiers coming to theaters and streaming services.
Worth is based on the true story of Jewish lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who was appointed special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The film stars Michael Keaton as Feinberg and Amy Ryan as his law partner. The actors previously worked together on Birdman.
The film was directed by Sara Colangelo, who won the Best Directing prize at Sundance in 2018 for her English-language remake of the Israeli film The Kindergarten Teacher.
The real Feinberg was present for the premiere and received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Ironbark is Cold-War thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as a British salesman recruited to serve as a go-between with a Soviet spy in the months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. It co-stars Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as his CIA contact.
Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman is one of several #MeToo-themed films at the Festival. It’s written and directed by Emerald Fennell (the second-season showrunner of Killing Eve) and stars Carey Mulligan (An Education).
The film makes audacious use of rom-com tropes, a bubblegum palette, and a Paris Hilton pop song in an angry #YesAllMen revenge thriller.
The Assistant
The Assistant is a far quieter and subtler take on #MeToo. It takes place over a single long day in the life of a young assistant (played by Julia Garner, an Emmy-winner for the Netflix crime drama Ozark) at a Miramax-like New York production company. Her unseen, un-named boss clearly represents Harvey Weinstein.
Vulture’s Alison Willmore called it the first great #MeToo movie, writing “The Assistant shares an understanding that the man himself is less psychologically interesting than the people around him, and how they’ve learned to tolerate, accommodate, rationalize away, or internalize his behavior.”
It’s the first scripted feature from writer-director Kitty Green (Casting JonBenét).
Wendy, a gritty and lyrical modern reimagining of Peter Pan, is the second feature from writer, director, and composer Benh Zeitlin. His Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, went on to earn four Oscar nominations.
Like Beasts, the film stars non-professional mostly child actors. It was filmed on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, on the slopes of an active volcano.
The film opens February 28 in New York and Los Angeles.
Downhill is a remake of the Swedish black comedy Force Majeure. It stars Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an American couple on a family ski vacation in the Alps who are forced to reevaluate their relationship after a seeming near-miss with an avalanche. It opens on Valentine’s Day in the US.
McMillion$ is a six-part documentary series about the McDonald’s Monopoly game scam, in which a criminal ring stole winning game pieces from the factory that made them.
HBO promoted the series at Sundance with an “immersive pop-up experience” on Main Street featuring free mini-burgers and fries, an open bar, and a wall of peel-off game pieces visitors could redeem for “vintage” Happy Meals prizes and other swag.
The series premiers on HBO February 3.