Sundance may have been forced to cancel its plans to host an in-person festival, but the shift to a virtual event isn’t likely to stifle dealmaking. After all, the 2021 edition of Sundance saw films like “Passing,” “Summer of Soul” and “CODA” score record-breaking pacts despite the fact that all-night bidding wars were conducted over Zoom.
This year’s festival has a number of high-profile features that should attract buyers’ attention, either because they feature A-list stars like Lena Dunham, Dakota Johnson and Regina Hall or because they deal with 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 score major sales. With streaming services such as Disney Plus and HBO Max on the prowl for content and digital veterans like Amazon and Netflix still swinging their checkbooks around, it’s a seller’s market. Here’s a look at some of the big films that are on studios and streamers’ must-watch list.
Director: Lena Dunham
Stars: Jon Bernthal, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Taylour Paige, Lena Dunham
Sales Agents: CAA, FilmNation
Why Buyers Are Circling: Dunham, who has kept a relatively low profile since “Girls” wrapped up its six-season run in 2017, returns with this look at a young woman’s sexual coming-of-age. She writes, directs and takes a supporting role in a film that seems tailor-made to let a thousand hot takes bloom.
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Cast: Bill Nighy, Amiee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Tom Burke
Sales Agents: CAA, Rocket Science
Why Buyers Are Circling: Nighy is a veteran scene stealer, who despite showy turns in “Love Actually” and “Notes on a Scandal,” has never really been given center stage in an awards-bait film. That could change with “Living,” a shattering remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” that boasts a screenplay by Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. As a zombified bureaucrat who is shaken out of his torpor after learning he is fatally ill, Nighy gets the role he was born to play.
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH
Director: Cooper Raiff
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Cooper Raiff, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett
Sales Agent: WME, ICM
Why Buyers Are Circling: The comedy about a bar mitzvah party host and the bond he forms with a single mother and her autistic daughter is being hailed as one of the festival’s “feel good” movies, a warm-hearted comedy with breakout potential. Raiff has been dubbed as the Gen Z answer to Richard Linklater and the Duplass brothers. That’s pretty heady company and if the hype proves accurate, the price tag for “Cha Cha Real Smooth” could be in the stratosphere.
Director: Shalini Kantayya
Sales Agents: WME, CAA
Why Buyers Are Circling: This penetrating look at the world’s most downloaded app feels like the perfect documentary for our pandemic times. Non-fiction films with a political bent have proved irresistible to buyers at recent Sundance’s, and “TikTok Boom” has all the makings of a ripped-from-the-headlines hit.
HONK FOR JESUS, SAVE YOUR SOUL
Director: Adamma Ebo
Cast: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown, Nicole Beharie
Sales Agents: UTA, CAA, ICM
Why Buyers Are Circling: This satire of megachurch culture has some serious star power in Hall and Brown and a fallen-from-grace storyline that seems heaven-sent.
TO THE END
Director: Rachel Lears
Sales Agent: Cinetic, Impact Partners
Why Buyers Are Circling: Lears’ previous film “Knock Down the House” landed a splashy pact from Netflix when it debuted at Sundance in 2019. Her follow-up “To The End” also pulls back the curtain on our political process by profiling four women of color who are pushing the Green New Deal. Once again, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez features prominently. The film could provide some much-needed inspiration at a time when D.C. feels hopelessly gridlocked. Of course, it could also serve as a depressing reminder of what’s lost in the midst of all this governmental dysfunction. So there’s that.
Director: Phyllis Nagy
Cast: Kate Mara, Sigourney Weaver, Elizabeth Banks, Chris Messina
Sales Agents: UTA, Protagonist
Why Buyers Are Circling: This historical drama feels fiercely urgent at a time when the Supreme Court is deciding the future of reproductive rights in America. “Call Jane” centers on underground organization that helped women obtain abortions in the years before Roe V. Wade was decided. The topical nature of the drama, plus an ensemble of acting heavyweights, means that interest is high.
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Cast: Richard Davis
Sales Agents: WME Independent, Endeavor Content
Why Buyers Are Circling: An Oscar-nominated screenwriter and consistently intriguing director, Ramin Bahrani comes to Sundance with a nonfiction project that’s selling more than his own pedigree. “2nd Chance” tells the delirious true story of Richard Davis, the man who invented the first concealable bullet proof vest. Shooting himself nearly 200 times to prove its effectiveness, the project takes a larger look at the American pastime of cultivating image, and how the lies we tell ourselves often come at great cost.
PALM TREES AND POWER LINES
Director: Jamie Dack
Cast: Lily McInerny, Jonathan Tucker, Gretchen Mol and Auden Thornton
Sales Agents: ICM Partners
Why Buyers Are Circling: Call it the “Euphoria” effect, but intense dramas about dissociative teens are so hot right now. This potent indie from Jamie Dack sees Lily McInerny as a lost 17-year-old who becomes entangled with a man twice her age (the perpetually underserved Jonathan Tucker). While his laser focus on her needs provides long overdue emotional support, the older man’s intentions become alarmingly clear.
FIRE OF LOVE
Director: Sara Dosa
Cast: Katia and Maurice Krafft
Sales Agents: Submarine
Why Buyers Are Circling: As an elevator pitch, you could do worse than “an epic love story with the visuals of a Richard Attenborough film.” That’s exactly what Sara Dosa is offering up with “Fire of Love,” a documentary about the bond and life work of French scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft. The pair spent a lifetime finding and studying volcanoes, increasing our understanding of the natural world and capturing some incredible images along the way. Bonus points for hiring Sundance darling Miranda July as narrator.
Director: Abi Damaris Corbin
Cast: John Boyega, Michael K. Williams, Connie Britton
Sales Agents: WME Independent
Why Buyers Are Circling: It will be hard for buyers to resist the emotional gravity of the final screen performance from Michael K. Williams, the celebrated star of “The Wire” and “Lovecraft Country.” In his last turn, Williams backs John Boyega in this timely and stirring drama about a Marine’s mental and emotional struggles to reenter society.
Director: Chloe Okuno
Cast: Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman
Sales Agents: UTA, Cinetic Media
Why Buyers Are Circling: Genre titles always perform at Sundance, especially one starring millennial horror queen Maika Monroe of “It Follows.” Here she plays a young wife recently transplanted to Romania, where her husband has been called to work. Aimless after abandoning her acting career she spends her days wandering a city overtaken by a serial killer known as “The Spider.” Before long, she spots a mysterious neighbor spying on her from a nearby window — and begins to suspect she’s being watched around the clock.
AM I OK?
Directors: Stephanie Allyn and Tig Notaro
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Sonoya Mizuno, Kiersey Clemons, Jermaine Fowler
Sales Agents: UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: This year’s Sundance queen Dakota Johnson delivers a subtle but heartbreaking performance as Lucy, a woman in her mid-30s struggling with her sexuality. On top of a rock-solid portrait of early-adulthood friendship — the kind the streamers in particular have been bellying up on in recent years — the film goes out of its way to celebrate and remove stigma from late bloomers.
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