Thousands of cinema lovers, Hollywood celebrities, industry executives and filmmakers from around the world have arrived in a very snowy Park City, Utah, for 10 days of movie watching. The 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival , the world’s premier showcase for independent film, kicked off Thursday with a starry gala honoring festival veterans like Kristen Stewart and Christopher Nolan and numerous world premieres.
Nineteen films are playing on day one, including documentaries about Brian Eno, Lollapalooza and Frida Kahlo, Yance Ford’s inquiry into policing in America, “Power,” as well as the mock government experiment “Girls State.” In fiction premieres, some lucky ticketholders will be among the first to see Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 80s-set “Freaky Tales” or “Thelma,” featuring June Squibb as a Los Angeles grandmother who gets scammed and goes on a mission to get her money back with the late Richard Roundtree.
The festival has always been a major sales market for studios and distributors looking for films to fill their slates, including both theatrical and streaming releases. But in the aftermath of the dual Hollywood strikes , sales this year could be even more robust. The theatrical release calendar for the first half of the year was “decimated,” producer Jason Blum noted at the opening day press conference. Around 80% of the 91 features playing do not yet have distributors.
“The one positive thing about the strike is a lot of movies that would have struggled probably shouldn’t,” Blum said. “I hope that a lot of Sundance movies end up in theaters quickly."
Festival director Eugene Hernandez added that “these films are ready for their audience.”
Blum, a Sundance board member, has had a longstanding relationship with the festival going back to the premiere of “Reality Bites" in 1992, which he said he almost missed because he was trapped “in a snowbank with Ethan Hawke.”
Over the years, Blum has experienced both sides of the acquisition coin at Sundance, as the one buying films (including, he laughed, one of the least successful acquisitions ever, “Happy, Texas”) and the one selling them (like Damien Chazelle's “Whiplash.”) He also brought Jordan Peele's “Get Out” to the festival and said the response to that first screening “started the whole thing.”
The main hub of activity remains in Park City, where many of the shops and restaurants on Main Street have been transformed into a hub of branded lounges from various sponsors and media partners. In addition to the venues playing movies around the clock, there are various talks and panels on everything from the legacy of Sundance to making your first feature. There will also be screenings in Salt Lake City, and, beginning on Jan. 25, online showings of select films for virtual festival passholders.
Slightly outside of town Thursday, some of the festival’s most well-heeled attendees will gather at the DeJoria Center in Kamas, Utah, for an opening night gala in which Nolan, Stewart, “Past Lives” director Celine Song and “The Eternal Memory” director Maite Alberdi will receive tribute awards.
“Presenting ‘Memento’ at the Sundance Film Festival marked a pivotal moment in my career,” Nolan said in an earlier statement. “This award is a full circle moment and testament to the extraordinary influence of independent filmmaking.”
Presenters expected at the gala include Robert Downey Jr., toasting his “Oppenheimer” director, and Jesse Eisenberg giving the award to Stewart, his friend and “Adventureland” co-star.
Stewart has two films debuting at Sundance this year: Rose Glass’s crime thriller “Love Lives Bleeding,” which is heading to theaters in March, and “Love Me,” with Steven Yeun, in which a buoy and a satellite fall in love.
“I think Sundance is a vital, vital part of the entertainment ecosystem and I think it’s undervalued,” Blum said. “Without Sundance, the United States would not be where it is in entertainment and not enough people make that connection.”
The Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 28.