Sundance 2022 Preview: Covid Hovers Over Sales Market For Second Straight Virtual Year

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival begins today, the second straight to be done virtually. Buyers and sellers won’t miss the cold, altitude, and avoiding what could have turned into an Omicron super spreader event as the highly catchy Covid variant continues to hobble the business.

It is surreal to once again not gather in Park City for the festival’s proud tradition of showcasing filmmakers and discovering bright young talent that is the life blood of the film business. The buyer and seller crowd are still getting over the shocking cancellation of an in-person Sundance, which was done so late that many felt stiffed. Imagine shelling out up to $30,000 for condos big enough to house the talent to attend film premieres and do press, and signing deals that asked for a month’s cancelation for refunds. Sundance didn’t announce until January 5 that its plans for a part in-person part virtual fest would only be the latter. Some who rented lodging said they were granted at least partial refunds, but others were just plain stuck for the bill.

It is just part of the unpredictability of this virus, and it is hard to place blame on the festival or anyone else. Like Cannes last year, Sundance held off canceling because organizers worked hard to create a path that involved limiting the crowd to the vaccinated, with testing protocols. But there is only so much they could control. Omicron kept getting worse around the holidays, not only in Los Angeles but Park City’s Summit County, which became a real Covid hotspot. Those who rented their condos to the Sundance did so in good faith, so who can begrudge them for insisting on sticking to the contract?

As for what to expect in the acquisition space, Sundance 2022 is anyone’s guess. Last year’s virtual festival – aided by a curated website that was extremely easy to navigate – replicated an atmosphere conducive to competitive buying. CODA got the festival off to a strong start on that first Friday, and sold for a world rights record $25 million to Apple. That sum bested the fest record set the previous year, when Hulu and Neon spent $22.5 million for the Andy Samberg-Cristin Milioti film Palm Springs. Another bidding battle brought Passing to Netflix for $15 million and many films were acquired in quieter deals, like Sony Pictures Classics saddling up Jockey. On the docu side, the big sale was the Questlove-directed Summer of Soul, to Searchlight.

At the same time, sellers confessed that virtual viewing didn’t help the cause of comedies and genre films, which are best experienced in a theater with a packed house and a reactive audience. This will again be a challenge for the 2022 film crop. Most sellers tell me that the films they will premiere this weekend and beyond haven’t been road tested for buyers. There was some talk about buyers and sellers finding a way to pre-screen in theaters in Los Angeles and New York those films that benefit most from audience reaction. But the spiking Omicron surges left everyone feeling the online plan was the safest way to screen films. The exception to the lack of prescreening was the Mimi Cave-directed film Fresh, which Searchlight bought early and will service through Hulu.

As they have been for the past several Sundance festivals, the acquisition appetite of streamers will hold the key to whether there will be bidding battles and another Sundance boom market. Unlike traditional theatrical distributors who just don’t know when mature audiences will start coming back to theaters to see the largely adult fare that Sundance curates, streamers are in competition with each other for subscribers and movies are a big part of that. Because of the lack of transparency in viewing numbers, it is hard to know how much a pricey Sundance acquisition like Palm Springs or CODA actually moves the needle, but the latter film is now an Oscar contender and Apple has pacted with director Sian Heder for another movie. Several years ago, detractors pointed to the low grosses of Amazon’s big ticket buys of films like Late Night, and were derisive when chief Jennifer Salke’s argued those films were big boosts to its subscription base. This skepticism has largely fallen by the wayside.

Will more theatrical distributors team with streamers, like Searchlight did with Hulu? Will Peacock and Paramount + become buyers? And will the crop of promising Sundance films prove compatible to streamer algorithms?

We will find out soon. Opening weekend films like Cha Cha Real Smooth (it’s writer/director/star Cooper Raiff’s second film — his debut won SXSW but unfortunately when that fest became the first Covid casualty — Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick, and 892 — John Boyega  with a disaffected ex-soldier who takes a bank hostage, with Michael K. Williams making his last appearance in a film — could emerge as this fest’s answer to CODA or Passing. One thing that sellers and buyers caution reporters like myself is that if sale volume is slow by Monday, that doesn’t mean that nobody will buy films, as happened last Toronto. It might just mean the process will take longer. Here are the Sundance titles I expect to sell:

892 – Director: Abi Damaris Corbin. Cast: John Boyega, Mihcael Kenneth Williams, Connie Birtton. When Brian Brown-Easley’s disability check fails to materialize from Veterans Affairs, he finds himself on the brink of homelessness and breaking his daughter’s heart. Out of options, he walks into a Wells Fargo Bank and says, “I’ve got a bomb.”
US Dramatic Competition / Premiere: Jan 21, 10:30AM.

SHARP STICK – Director: Lena Dunham. Cast: Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Scott Speedman, Lena Dunham, Taylour Paige, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sensitive and naive 26-year-old Sarah Jo lives in a Los Angeles apartment complex with her influencer sister and her disillusioned mother. She is also a wonderful caregiver to Zach, a child with an intellectual disability. Premiere, Jan. 22, 8:30PM

2ND CHANCE – Director: Ramain Bahrani A documentary chronicling the life of Richard Davis, the man who invented the concealable bulletproof vest – shooting himself 196 times in the course of his career to prove the effectiveness of his vests. Some are hoping this could be the next Tiger King.
Premieres Category. Premiere: Jan 22 1:45PM

AM I OK? – Director: Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne. Cast: Dakota Johnson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jermaine Fowler, Molly Gordon, June Diane Raphael, Sean Hayes. Lucy and Jane have been best friends for most of their lives and think they know everything there is to know about each other. But when Jane announces she’s moving to London, Lucy reveals a long held secret. As Jane tries to help Lucy, their friendship is thrown into chaos.
Premieres / Premiere: Jan 24, 1:00PM

CALL JANE – Director: Phyllis Nagy. Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Mara, Chris Messina. Set during the summer of 1968, Nagy’s first directorial effort since 2005’s “Mrs. Harris” stars Elizabeth Banks as a housewife who finds herself facing a life-threatening pregnancy in the time just before Roe v. Wade. After someone mercifully connects her with the Jane Collective (aka the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation), Banks’ character finds new purpose in life, and joins the movement’s effort to provide safe access to abortions nationwide.
Premieres / Premiere Jan 21, 4:45PM

CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH – Director: Cooper Raiff Cast: Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Raúl Castillo. A directionless college graduate embarks on a relationship with a young mom and her teenage daughter, while learning the boundaries of his new bar mitzvah partynstarting gig.
US Dramatic Competition / Premiere: Jan 23, 1:45PM

DUAL – Director: Riley Stearns. Cast: Sophia Lee, Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale. A woman opts for a cloning procedure after she receives a terminal diagnosis but when she recovers her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail, leading to a court-mandated duel to the death.
US Dramatic Competition / Premiere: Jan 22, 5:00PM

EMILY THE CRIMINAL – Director: John Patton Ford Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi. The crime dramedy follows the eponymous Emily “who gets involved in a credit card scam after being saddled with debt, what pulls her into the criminal and deadly underworld of Los Angeles.
Premieres / Premiere: Jan 24, 2:15PM

GOD’S COUNTRY – Director: Julian Higgins. Cast: Jefferson White, Thandiwe Newton, Tanaya Beatty. When a grieving college professor confronts two hunters she catches trespassing on her property, she’s drawn into an escalating battle of wills with catastrophic consequences.
Premieres / Premiere: Jan 23, 8:00PM

LA GUERRA CIVIL – Director: Eva Longoria. The epic rivalry between iconic boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez in the 1990s sparked a cultural divide between Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans.
Premieres / Premiere: Jan 20, 4:30PM

HONK FOR JESUS, SAVE YOUR SOUL – Director: Adamma Ebo Cast: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown. Shot in faux-documentary style and tracing the outrageous story of a Southern Baptist megachurch’s pastor and first lady in their attempts to resurrect their parish following a scandal, Adamma Ebo’s short “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul” caught the attention of Issa Rae, who featured it on her #ShortFilmSundays platform in 2019.
Premieres / Premiere: Jan 23, 10:45AM

WATCHER – Diretor: Chloe Okuno. Cast: Maika Monroe, Burn Gorman, Karl Glusman. A young woman moves into a new apartment with her fiancé only to be tormented by the feeling that she is being stalked by an unseen watcher in an adjacent building.
US Dramatic Competition / Premiere: Jan 21, 8:00PM

TIKTOK, BOOM – Director: Shalini Kantayya. With TikTok now crowned the world’s most downloaded app, these are the personal stories of a cultural phenomenon, told through an ensemble cast of Gen-Z natives, journalists, and experts alike. This film seeks to answer, “why is an app best known for people dancing the target of so much controversy?”
US Documentary Competition / Premiere: Jan 23, 5:45PM

JIHAD REHAB – Director: Meg Smaker. The director, a former firefighter who was traumatized by 9/11 and went to Afghanistan trying to find out how such hate could exist, discovered group of Al-Qaeda members who were transferred from Guantanamo to a rehabilitation center for extremists.
US Documentary Competition / Premiere: Jan 22, 4:45PM

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