Will Sundance 2011 (Jan 20-30) build on the momentum of last year? Festival chief John Cooper tells Jeremy Kay why he believes the line-up is impressive and how he is working with Berlin to take some titles global.
The Sundance Film Festival director, John Cooper, is in a buoyant frame of mind. Exhausted, proud and understandably anxious to see how this year’s selections will go down, Cooper believes the stage is set to build on the success of last year’s edition.
Sundance 2010 was a high-water mark which delighted audiences and brought a spring to the step of the independent industry. The climate of cautious deal-making meant price points on the flurry of deals never came close to the heady days of Hamlet 2 and Little Miss Sunshine, but there was gold in them Utah hills.
The Kids Are All Right, Splice and Winter’s Bone have all made money, grossing $21m, $17m and $6m in the US respectively. They are among a crop of awards contenders which screened at Sundance 2010 and includes Blue Valentine, The Company Men, Waste Land and Restrepo. This year Cooper, director of programming Trevor Groth and their team are confident they have left no stone unturned in their quest to discover new work.
“To be independent, you have to be relentlessly vigilant and keep demanding more and making hard choices,” Cooper says. “My staff travelled more than ever. Our discussions were harder. Submissions came in at about the same number as the year before and with the financial situation we weren’t sure, but everything seems healthy.”
A total of 3,812 feature submissions has resulted in a 115-strong feature roster, of which 94 are world premieres. Entries showcase work from new directors, including two well-known actors who have moved behind the camera (Paddy Considine with Tyrannosaur and Vera Farmiga with Higher Ground), returning alumni (Drake Doremus with Like Crazy, James Marsh with Project Nim) and a host of beloved indie acting talent such as Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti, Greg Kinnear, Ellen Barkin and independent cinema’s new It Girl, Jennifer Lawrence.
“The diversity of stories from the independent film world is better than it has been in the past,” Cooper suggests, pointing out this includes non-fiction, hence the new Documentary Premieres selection. “We have so many returning film-makers it felt like time to make more room for this section.”
Cooper has often stressed the desire to make Sundance a gathering place for the international film-making community. “I’ve been trying to work closely with Berlin,” he says. “They’re so close to us in the calendar so we wanted to make sure we’re not limiting the opportunity for film-makers to have both experiences. American film-makers need to think globally in order to survive.”
Many US producers and packaging agents would agree and at time of writing Cooper was talking to the Berlinale about getting a number of Sundance titles into the programme. Miranda July’s The Future is already confirmed for both festivals.
There will once again be VoD releases through cable channel Sundance Selects, but the festival has ditched last year’s disappointing VoD experiment with YouTube and the low-budget NEXT strand (the section itself returns).
“It came so late in the game that there wasn’t enough time to promote it,” Cooper explains. “We wanted to see if the technology with YouTube was ready to go. It turns out it was, but we couldn’t even announce it until the start of the festival. I’m glad we did it because so much pressure was put on these digital initiatives, but they still need a lot of work to get right.
“We’ve always been a leader in the digital realm for a festival — we were the first with online content and streaming content and putting shorts online. We’re trying to find a bigger way to put the Sundance Institute in the digital realm and our new executive director Keri Putnam is looking into this. I think we’re onto something.”
YouTube is behind the Premieres entry Life In A Day, a patchwork of user-generated content culled from more than 5,000 hours of footage shot on July 24, 2010. Kevin Macdonald directed the film and it will launch on YouTube the same day as its Sundance premiere. “It was a fun ride,” Cooper says, admitting he accepted the film sight unseen. He pauses. “It was a tremendous editing job.”
Jeremy Kay picks some of the hot films at Sundance 2010
US DRAMATIC COMPETITION
Brit Marling co-wrote and stars in this story about a blossoming romance on the eve of the discovery of a duplicate Earth. Directed by Mike Cahill.
The in-demand Jennifer Lawrence stars alongside Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones in this romance from Douchebag creator Drake Doremus.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The Olsen twins’ younger sister Elizabeth lands her first major role as a cult survivor who struggles to re-assimilate with her family.
Another Happy Day
Barry Levinson’s son Sam launches his directing career with a chaotic wedding comedy starring Demi Moore, Ellen Barkin and Thomas Haden Church.
US DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
A portrait of the man behind Sesame Street favourite Elmo.
Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times
This rare access to the paper’s newsroom gives a snapshot of US journalism at a crossroads.
The Redemption Of General Butt Naked
How a brutal Liberian warlord reinvented himself as an evangelist and revisited his victims.
Sing Your Song
A film about Harry Belafonte’s little-known civil rights and social justice activism.
WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION
A depressed Zen monk falls back on his heavy metal past to revive his spirits.
The Guard (Ire)
Brendan Gleeson’s unorthodox Irish cop teams up with Don Cheadle’s po-faced FBI agent to bust a drugs ring. Mark Strong also stars.
Mad Bastards (Aus)
A street fighter and a local cop clash in Australia’s spectacular frontier region.
Paddy Considine’s directorial debut stars Peter Mullan as a violent man who has a shot at redemption when he meets a mysterious charity-shop worker.
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
The Bengali Detective (India-US-UK)
A dance-obsessed private eye and his band of aides chase down poisoners, adulterers and killers in West Bengal.
The Green Wave (Ger)
The chilling plight of pro-democracy activists in Iran over the summer of 2009 is related through animated blogs and tweets.
Project Nim (UK)
Man On Wire Oscar winner James Marsh returns to Sundance with the story of a talking chimpanzee.
Shut Up Little Man!
An Audio Misadventure (Aus-US) How the tape recordings of noisy neighbours sparked a viral pop-culture phenomenon.
The Devil’s Double
Dominic Cooper descends into hell in this true story about Uday Hussein’s body double. Lee Tamahori directs.
Life In A Day
Director Kevin Macdonald sifted through more than 5,000 hours of YouTube footage to create the world’s biggest user-generated film.
Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons star in this financial crisis saga charting a tumultuous day at an investment bank.
My Idiot Brother
Comedy in which Paul Rudd plays a chaotic idealist and Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks and Emily Mortimer his daunting sisters.
Bobby Fischer Against The World
Former grand jury prize winner Liz Garbus (The Farm) chronicles the eventful life of late chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Morgan Spurlock funded his latest film about branding, advertising and product placement in cinema through… branding, advertising and product placement.
Hoop Dreams director Steve James is back with a look at former gang members working to protect communities.
Ex-grand jury prize winner Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) turns the spotlight on the late president Ronald Reagan’s career.
PARK CITY AT MIDNIGHT
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same
Government agents monitor a budding romance between a shop worker and a lesbian alien.
Hobo With A Shotgun Rutger Hauer is a wanderer who turns vigilante.
Michael Tully’s comedy-horror follows a reclusive sports hustler who reunites with his unhinged brothers.
Lucky McKee’s film about a lawyer who endangers his family when he captures a violent clan member.