Before COVID turned the film festival landscape upside down, premieres at Sundance were a hotbed of drama as studio heads and streaming executives pooled the theater’s best seats and then crossed the exit path once the credits rolled in the hopes of outdoing each other for blockbusters. After two years working virtually, Sundance is back in person. However, it’s unclear if the all-night bidding wars that were a staple of festivals past will also be back in force. In a time of cost-cutting and box-office struggles for independent films, a new era of financial constraints may be the order of the day.
But the thin mountain air of Sundance could cause all that economy to evaporate. And if that’s the case, here are 13 movies that could have buyers writing big checks.
Throw: Cynthia Erivo and Alia Shawkat
Director: Anthony Chen
Sales agent: Utah
Why buyers are spinning: Erivo is said to be nothing short of stunning as Jacqueline, a refugee who flees war-torn Liberia in search of the safety of a Greek island. Through her friendship with a tour guide (Shaukat), she begins to find a way to move beyond the violence and trauma she has endured to forge a new life for herself. Tears will be shed.
Throw: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Brown, and Geraldine Viswanathan
Director: Susanna Vogel
Sales agent: Studiocanal/UTA
Why buyers are spinning: Embrace controversy. The rowdy stars of “Caliphate” and “CODA” team up for a sharp dissection of social pressures on a “first date.” Based on a New Yorker story that went viral with its thought-provoking depiction of gender and sexuality, it looks like “Cat Person” might be the hotly discussed movie at Sundance.
Throw: Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Taylor Page
Director: Elijah Bynum
Sales agent: CAA
Why buyers are spinning: Flashy central performance. Majors delivers a transformative turn as a rambunctious young man who dreams of bodybuilding superstars. In a year when the actor is set to appear in sequels to “Creed” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” this is the movie that could earn Majors an invitation to the Academy Awards.
Wild youth free
Throw: Sanaa Lathan, Algie Smith, Sierra Capri and Mike Epps
Director: Thembi Banks
Sales agent: Utah
Why buyers are spinning: Linked as one to watch, Young.Wild.Free is said to mark Banks’ stylish feature debut. Billed as a modern take on “Bonnie & Clyde,” the film follows an aspiring artist who finds himself smitten with a local bad girl.
Throw: Anne Hathaway, Thomasin Mackenzie, Jefferson White, Marine Ireland
Director: William Oldroyd
Sales agent: WME
Why buyers are spinning: Ottessa Meshvig’s coming-of-age novel enthralled critics with its narrative twists and unabashed view of abuse and neglect. It’s powerful stuff, and a movie that pulled in a top-shelf duo in McKenzie and Hathaway as two women whose lives collide in a dangerous way. Spoiling anything more would be a crime.
Throw: Brian Emanuel, Yayu AW Unru, Kate Lyn Sheil, Henry Ian Cusick, Anthony Kiedis
Director: Justin Chun
Sales agent: Utah
Why buyers are spinning: Emmanuel, a popular Indonesian rapper, is said to have given a defining performance as an up-and-coming musician whose relationship with his father-turned-manager is put to the test. It’s the story of family ties and ambition woven together by Chon, who has proven to be a master of the genre of intertwined relationship dramas in films like “Blue Bayou” and “Ms. Purple.”
Throw: Justin H. Men, Cherry Cola, and Ally Mackie
Director: Randall Park
Sales agent: WME/UTA
Why buyers are spinning: Park’s directorial debut is the kind of magic he feels destined to be a hit at Sundance. The coming-of-age story follows a Bay Area movie buff named Ben, who runs a movie theater, though he’d rather check titles on the Criterion Collection watch list or hang with his best friend Alice at a local diner. When his girlfriend Miko moves to New York for an internship, he leaves to figure out what he really wants out of life. Warning: it may make you crave pastrami on the rye.
Voice is still small
Director: Luke Lorentzen
Sales agent: Submarine / CAA
Why buyers are spinning: It’s hard not to get emotional when thinking about the stress on healthcare workers in the early days of the pandemic. The religious documentary focuses on an aspiring hospital chaplain, who begins a year-long residency in spiritual care at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital in 2020 and 2021, one of the bloodiest periods in US history. Through the process, she discovers that the best way to provide emotional support to patients is to look deep within herself. Don’t forget napkins.
Sometimes I think about death
Throw: Daisy Ridley, Dave Mergie, Brittany O’Grady, Megan Stalter
Director: Rachel Lambert
Sales agent: CAA
Why buyers are spinning: Fran (Ridley) is a woman who, as the title suggests, loves to contemplate death. Her sick habit is challenged when she meets Robert, a new co-worker who seems destined to make a new friend out of Fran. After years of isolation and working from home associated with the pandemic, the story of a cute encounter has an almost nostalgic feel.
Om: worship at the end of the world
Director: Ben Brown and Chiaki Yanagimoto
Sales agent: Submarine / Season Five
Why buyers are spinning: Is the title alone not addicted to you? The thrilling documentary about the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo takes a stern look at the warning signs and horrific behavior that eventually led to its designation as a terrorist organization. In the middle is Shoko Asahara, who started a seemingly innocuous yoga school in Japan. Even 10 years later, the group – whose name means “higher truth” – orchestrated war crimes, including the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
Throw: Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adele Exarchopoulos
Director: Ira Sachs
Sales agent: SBS/WME
Why buyers are spinning: Sachs is no stranger to crowd pleasers at Sundance; Corridors is the director’s eighth film to premiere at the festival. Described as a story about “the chaos of life”, Rogowski and Whishaw play a same-sex couple whose longstanding partnership is shaken when one of them has an affair with a woman. So, the other initiates his extramarital flings, successfully winning back his husband’s attention while revealing a bit of jealousy. Will they reconcile or end their marriage?
Director: Madeline Gavin
Sales agent: Submarine
Why buyers are spinning: It may be the most politically effective of documentaries in a festival filled with politically charged factual films. Beyond Utopia follows different families as they risk everything as they try to flee North Korea in hopes of finding a better life away from the brutal regime. The footage of their treacherous journey is what will get people talking, but it’s Gavin’s candid interviews with the brave asylum seekers that are long overdue after the lights come on.
Flora and his son
Throw: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eve Hewson, Jack Reynor, Orin Quinlan
Director: John Carney
Sales agent: Season Five / WME / FilmNation
Why buyers are spinning: Carney is a master at mixing memorable music and emotional uplifts in films like “Begin Again” and “Once.” His latest effort is the story of a single mother (Hewson) who finds a way to reconnect with her estranged son (Kellen) by working together on some hot dogs. It’s a journey that also finds her forming a bond with a senior guitar teacher (Gordon Levitt) via a series of Zoom lessons. This has the kind of star power and story that could help spark a movie breakout at a time when indie films are getting the cold shoulder from moviegoers.