Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images
It’s the 40th edition of Sundance — but the festival is looking forward, not back
By Mandalit del Barco/NPR
The Sundance Film Festival — which begins on Thursday — is celebrating its 40th edition this year. But beyond a gala and some retrospective screenings, you won’t see a lot of looking back.
“You won’t see us being too nostalgic,” says festival director Eugene Hernandez. “We really feel like the best way to honor the history of Sundance and the history of independent storytelling is by looking ahead.”
This year, Sundance organizers say they received a record 17,000 films from around the world submitted for consideration. That’s a lot of growth; the first year featured “maybe 25 films” and a handful of documentaries and “maybe 100 people wandered around out in front of the theater,” Robert Redford told NPR in 2017.
“I thought this is probably not going to work, but slowly it caught on and then it caught fire,” Redford said. “Now it’s almost out of control, but the mission was accomplished: To create the space for other voices in film to get their stories told and be seen.”
The festival began in Salt Lake City in 1978, to promote indie films as well as the state of Utah. After it moved to the ski resort town Park City, Redford took it over under the auspices of his Sundance Institute. (If you’re scratching your head over the math that the festival is celebrating its 40th in 2024 after beginning in 1978 that’s because it skipped a few years.)
Ever since, filmmakers and film lovers have gathered there for weeks of movie premieres, panels, parties and deal-making. Sundance earned a reputation for scouting talent and buzzy titles, and helped launch careers for many top filmmakers. Some of the films even went on to become blockbusters or win awards in Hollywood.
Big films that began at Sundance
Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen’s neo-noir crime film, was introduced to Sundance audiences in 1984. It later won two Independent Spirit Awards.
Sex, Lies and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut, created a sensation in 1989. It won four Spirit Awards and was nominated for an Oscar. Soderbergh has a film in this year’s lineup, Presence.
Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s feature debut, premiered in 1992.
View this post on Instagram
Y tu mamá también, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 Mexican road trip movie, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
Little Miss Sunshine, went on from its 2006 Sundance premiere to win two Oscars.
Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s 2014 psychological drama, also won Oscars and awards at all the other major ceremonies.
Get Out, Jordan Peele’s 2017 thriller, was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars.
CODA, about a deaf father struggling to understand his hearing daughter’s dreams to sing, won three Oscars in 2022, including for Best Picture.
17,000 films were submitted this year
Sundance audiences are already buzzing about this year’s premieres, like the post apocalyptic romance Love Me. It stars Steven Yeun and Kristen Stewart, who personify a lovestruck satellite and a buoy who meet online.
Another film premiering at Sundance is a satire: The American Society of Magical Negroes. It stars Justice Smith and David Alan Grier.
Exhibiting Forgiveness stars André Holland as a visual artist, with his singer wife played by Andra Day. Real life painter Titus Kaphar says his first feature film “is for anybody who’s ever struggled with forgiveness.”
Veni Vidi Vici, is a comedy whodunit from Austria about a billionaire family that likes outdoor adventure.
Among the documentaries the festival is known for are offerings on Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, Superman star Christopher Reeve, singer Luther Vandross and the 46 musical superstars who gathered in 1985 to sing “We are the World” to raise money for African famine relief. The Greatest Night in Pop chronicles that moment.
Other musical documentaries include the stories of the band Devo and the Lollapalooza festival. One film features experimental music producer Brian Eno; its scenes will be ordered differently each time it screens, using generative software.
The use of artificial intelligence has been controversial among film writers and performers, but a number of this year’s filmmakers have collaborated with AI to tell their stories. Among them is Rashad Newsome, whose project “Being (the Digital Griot)” features an onscreen AI figure that vogues and gives advice based on data sets from Black theorists, poets and activists.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Independent filmmakers and movie lovers have been gathering in Park City, Utah, since 1978. They’re back again starting today for the Sundance Film Festival. NPR’s Mandalit del Barco previews some of the movies premiering at the festival this year.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The festival got its start in Salt Lake City to promote indie films and the state of Utah. Actor Robert Redford chaired that first year. Then the festival moved to the ski resort town, Park City. Over the years, the event helped launch the careers of indie filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, the Coen Brothers, and Steven Soderbergh, who has a film in this year’s lineup. Here’s Eugene Hernandez, the director of the Sundance Film Festival. He says this is a milestone year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
EUGENE HERNANDEZ: You won’t see us being too nostalgic. We will acknowledge that moment in the 40th edition with a special gala, and we have some retrospective screenings, but we really feel like the best way to honor the history of Sundance and the history of independent storytelling is by looking ahead.
DEL BARCO: To that end, Sundance audiences are already buzzing about this year’s premieres, like the post-apocalyptic romance “Love Me.” It stars Steven Yeun and Kristen Stewart, who personify a lovestruck satellite and a buoy who meet online.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “LOVE ME”)
STEVEN YEUN: (As character) Who are you?
KRISTEN STEWART: (As character) I am life form.
YEUN: (As character) What type of life form?
STEWART: (As character) Is buoy life form?
YEUN: (As character) Great first question.
DEL BARCO: Another film premiering at Sundance is a satire, “The American Society Of Magical Negroes.” It stars Justice Smith and David Alan Grier.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MAGICAL NEGROES”)
DAVID ALAN GRIER: (As Roger) What’s the most dangerous animal on the planet?
JUSTICE SMITH: (As Aren) A shark.
GRIER: (As Roger) White people when they feel uncomfortable. White people feeling uncomfortable precedes a lot of bad stuff for us. That’s why we fight white discomfort every day.
DEL BARCO: “Exhibiting Forgiveness” stars Andre Holland is a visual artist with his singer wife played by Andra Day. Real-life painter Titus Kaphar describes his first feature film.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TITUS KAPHAR: This film is for anybody who’s ever struggled with forgiveness. The generation of us whose parents struggled with addiction in the ’80s and ’90s – now we’re old enough to be parents, and our children are beginning to ask us questions.
DEL BARCO: This year’s Sundance says it had a record 17,000 films from around the world submitted for consideration. One of those that made the cut is “Veni Vidi Vici,” a comedy whodunit from Austria about a billionaire family that likes outdoor adventure.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “VENI VIDI VICI”)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whoo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Whoo-hoo (ph).
DEL BARCO: Among the documentaries the festival is known for is one on Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “FRIDA”)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).
DEL BARCO: Also docs about “Superman” star Christopher Reeves, singer Luther Vandross and the 46 musical superstars who gathered in 1985 to sing for African famine relief.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “THE GREATEST NIGHT IN POP”)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We are the world. We are the children.
DEL BARCO: “The Greatest Night In Pop” chronicles that moment. Other musical documentaries include the stories of the band Devo and the Lollapalooza festival. Another Sundance film features experimental music producer Brian Eno. Its scenes will be ordered differently each time it screens, using generative software. Other filmmakers are collaborating with artificial intelligence in their storytelling, including Rashaad Newsome’s “Being (The Digital Griot).” The onscreen AI figure vogues and gives advice based on data sets from Black theorists, poets, and activists.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “BEING (THE DIGITAL GRIOT)”)
AUTOMATED VOICE: Do you regularly deal with racial aggressions, inappropriate or demeaning comments, or just nasty looks because you’re Black? Well, I am here to help.
DEL BARCO: The Sundance Film Festival will also be online for those who can’t make it to the mountain.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.