Sundance may have been forced to cancel plans to hold an in-person festival, but the move to a virtual event is unlikely to stifle deals. After all, the 2021 edition of Sundance has seen films like “Passing”, “Summer of Soul” and “CODA” make record pacts despite all-night bidding wars being waged on Zoom.
This year’s festival features a number of high-profile features that should grab shoppers’ attention, either because they feature A-list stars like Lena Dunham, Dakota Johnson and Regina Hall, or because they treat hot topics like abortion rights and religion. There are also a number of documentaries exploring everything from the rise of TikTok to the fight to prevent a climate change catastrophe that could generate major sales. With streaming services like Disney Plus and HBO Max chasing content and digital veterans like Amazon and Netflix still swinging their checkbooks, it’s a seller’s market. Here’s a look at some of the big movies that are on studios’ and streamers’ must-see lists.
Director: Lena Dunham
Stars: Jon Bernthal, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Taylor Paige, Lena Dunham
Commercial agents : CAA, Film Nation
Why buyers are turning in circles: Dunham, who has kept a relatively low profile since “Girls” wrapped its six-season run in 2017, returns with this look at a young woman’s coming of age. She writes, directs and plays a supporting role in a film that seems tailor-made to let a thousand hot takes bloom.
Director: Oliver Hermanus
To throw: Bill Nighy, Amiee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke
Commercial agents : CAA, Rocket Science
Why buyers are turning in circles: Nighy is a veteran scene-stealer, who despite spectacular turns in “Love Actually” and “Notes on a Scandal”, has never really been the focus of an award-winning film. That may change with “Living,” a smash remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” that boasts a screenplay by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. As a zombified bureaucrat who awakens from his torpor after learning he is mortally ill, Nighy gets the role he was born for.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
CHA CHA TRUE SMOOTH
Director: Cooper Raiff
To throw: Dakota Johnson, Cooper Raiff, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett
Sales agent: WME, ICM
Why buyers are turning in circles: The comedy about a bar mitzvah host and the bond he forms with a single mother and her autistic daughter is hailed as one of the festival’s “feel good” films, a hearty comedy with escapist potential. Raiff has been nicknamed Gen Z’s answer to Richard Linklater and the Duplass brothers. It’s quite a heady business and if the hype proves accurate, the price of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” could be in the stratosphere.
Director: Shalini Kantayya
Commercial agents : WME, CAA
Why buyers are turning in circles: This penetrating look at the world’s most downloaded app feels like the perfect documentary for our pandemic times. Politically-leaning non-fiction films have proven irresistible to buyers at recent Sundance, and “TikTok Boom” has all the makings of a headline-grabbing hit.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
HONK FOR JESUS, SAVE YOUR SOUL
Director: Adamma Ebo
To throw: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown, Nicole Beharie
Commercial agents : UTA, CAA, ICM
Why buyers are turning in circles: This satire of mega-church culture has some serious star power in Hall and Brown and a fallen-from-favor script that seems heaven-sent.
UNTIL THE END
Director: Rachel Lears
Sales agent: Kinetic, Impact Partners
Why buyers are turning in circles: Lears’ previous film “Knock Down the House” landed a splashy deal from Netflix when it debuted at Sundance in 2019. Its follow-up “To The End” also lifts the curtain on our political process by profiling four women from color that are pushing the Green New Deal. Once again, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez figures prominently. The movie could provide some much-needed inspiration at a time when DC feels hopelessly stuck. Of course, it could also serve as a depressing reminder of what is lost amid all this government dysfunction. So there is this.
Director: Phyllis Nagy
To throw: Kate Mara, Sigourney Weaver, Elizabeth Banks, Chris Messina
Commercial agents : UTA, protagonist
Why buyers are turning in circles: This historical drama seems fiercely urgent at a time when the Supreme Court is decide the future reproductive rights in America. “Call Jane” focuses on an underground organization that helped women obtain abortions in the years before Roe V. Wade’s ruling. The topical nature of the drama, plus an acting heavyweight ensemble, means interest is high.
Director: Ramin Bahrani
To throw: Richard Davis
Commercial agents: WME Independent, Endeavor Content
Why Buyers Are Going in Circles: Oscar-nominated screenwriter and ever-intriguing director Ramin Bahrani arrives at Sundance with a non-fiction project that outsells his own pedigree. “2nd Chance” tells the crazy true story of Richard Davis, the man who invented the first concealable body armor. Shooting itself nearly 200 times to prove its effectiveness, the project takes a broader look at the American pastime of image cultivation, and how the lies we tell ourselves often come at a heavy cost.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
PALM TREES AND POWER LINES
To throw: Lily McInerny, Jonathan Tucker, Gretchen Mol and Auden Thornton
Commercial agents: ICM Partners
Why Buyers Are Going in Circles: Call it the “Euphoria” effect, but intense dissociative teen drama is so hot right now. This powerful Jamie Dack indie sees Lily McInerny as a lost 17-year-old girl who gets tangled up with a man twice her age (the perpetually underserved Jonathan Tucker). As his laser focus on his needs provides long overdue emotional support, the older man’s intentions become alarmingly clear.
FIRE OF LOVE
Director: Sara Dosa
To throw: Katia and Maurice Krafft
Commercial agents: Submarine
Why Buyers Are Going in Circles: As an elevator pitch, you could do worse than “an epic love story with the visuals of a Richard Attenborough movie.” That’s exactly what Sara Dosa offers with “Fire of Love”, a documentary about the bond and life work of French scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft. The couple have spent their lives finding and studying volcanoes, increasing our understanding of the natural world and capturing incredible images along the way. Bonus points for hiring Sundance sweetheart Miranda July as narrator.
Director: Abi Damaris Corbin
To throw: John Boyega, Michael K. Williams, Connie Britton
Commercial agents: Independent WME
Why Buyers Are Going in Circles: It will be hard for buyers to resist the emotional gravity of the final on-screen performance of Michael K. Williams, the famous star of “The Wire” and “Lovecraft Country”. In his final turn, Williams supports John Boyega in this timely and moving drama about a Marine’s mental and emotional struggles to reintegrate into society.
Director: Chloe Okuno
To throw: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman
Commercial agents: UTA, Kinetic Media
Why Buyers Are Going in Circles: Genre titles always happen at Sundance, especially the one featuring millennial horror queen Maika Monroe from “It Follows.” She plays here a young wife recently transplanted to Romania, where her husband has been called to work. Aimless after giving up her acting career, she spends her days wandering around a town overtaken by a serial killer known as “The Spider”. Soon after, she spots a mysterious neighbor spying on her from a nearby window – and begins to suspect that she is being watched 24 hours a day.
Am I okay?
Directors: Stephanie Allyn and Tig Notaro
To throw: Dakota Johnson, Sonoya Mizuno, Kiersey Clemons, Jermaine Fowler
Why Buyers Are Going in Circles: This year’s Sundance queen Dakota Johnson delivers a subtle but heartbreaking performance as Lucy, a woman in her thirties struggling with her sexuality. As well as a rock-solid portrayal of friendship in early adulthood – the kind that streamers in particular have leaned into in recent years – the film goes out of its way to celebrate and eliminate the stigma of latecomers.
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