Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sundance 2017: Streaming Owns the Universe

Producer/story analyst extraordinaire David Whitney puts on his roving reporter hat to bring us the skinny from this year's Sundance Film Festival. 

By David Whitney

This year’s festival was less closed-off from the outside world than previous years. If 2016 was all about the race to find a winner, then 2017 was the answer to that race. Like the presidential election, whose transition of power took place during the opening days of the festival, there was a clear winner in Amazon’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, marking the first streaming service nominations in a major award ceremony. This year the festival did not shy away or close itself off to the outside world. Instead, it embraced its role as a safe place for artists to share their visions of the world and tell their stories. It wasn’t closed off, but a part of the changing world around it. While hundreds of thousands marched around the world, Park City held its own women’s march. Storms, hacking and constant changes by the new administration kept Sundance in the news and its creators relevant. It embraced and took on the changes to the world and community instead of resting on its laurels. While the search for awards gold was still evident, the players, themes and content was ripped directly from the headlines. The festival was a part of the world at large in 2017 instead of creating its own insular community of artists. 

"The Big Sick"
Digital Dominance

This was the year that Netflix and Amazon overtook the big studios.  Amazon was the big winner, planting their flag early with a flashy acquisition of THE BIG SICK opening weekend. The streaming service went on to pick up a few more films (CROWN HEIGHTS and LANDLINE). Netflix flexed its own muscle before the film festival even started with its smart partnership with independent producers like XYZ whose Macon Blair directorial debut I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE opened the festival and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize in its category. It to beat out the major studio distribution arms, acquiring buzzy doc CHASING CORAL and TV veteran Marti Noxon’s TO THE BONE before the festival’s end. 

Even a week after the festival, the streaming service made headlines with a rich deal for Dee Ree’s MUDBOUND. It seemed there wasn’t a bidding war that the two weren’t a part of this year, while traditional heavyweights like Harvey Weinstein and his The Weinstein Company counterpart were all but silent. Sure, A24, Focus, Fox Searchlight, and Sony Pictures Classics were in the mix, but they were always at odds with these two digital titans. Their inclusion in the festival is no longer a question but a certainty, and 2017 the year they dominated from the opening to the very end. 

Performance Anxiety

"Patti Cake$"
It’s hard out there for a pimp. 2017 was the year of the artist having the guts to get up on stage and cut open a vein. Every category featured comedians, rappers, writers, actors and singers doing what they do best. THE BIG SICK was all about a comedian coming to terms with his relationship with a woman who was in a coma. Breakout performer Danielle MacDonald drove US Dramatic Competition’s PATTI CAKE$ to a huge $10 million sale to Fox Searchlight as MC Killa P. 

Neon made its big debut, acquiring Aubrey Plaza’s internet sensation INGRID GOES WEST, and Sony Pictures Classics fell for BRIGSBY BEAR, a dark comedy by Dave McCary. Performers ruled the festival in every category and across all genres, reminding us all that being an artist is hard business. 

Actors + Actresses

Each year, a new crop of actors emerge on the scene in Park City. Last year set the stage for the awards season to start with strong performances by Casey Affleck (in last year’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) and debuts by Anya Taylor-Joy (in THE WITCH). This year was no exception, with a slew of new performers breaking out. From TV stars (like Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield or Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanijiani) to supporting actors in the independent world (including Melanie Lynskey from last year’s THE INTERVENTION or Danielle MacDonald from 2013’s THE EAST), the only unifying thread was strong roles anchored by even stronger actors. This year’s festival was all about supporting this diverse mix of talent in front of the camera.

Here are a few of the performers everyone will be talking about: 

Timothee Chalamet as Elio Perlman in Luca Guadagnino's CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. Until this year’s festival young actor Timothee Chalamet was merely a runner up to play Spider-Man in the most recent reboot. That is, until he held his own as a romantic lead opposite Armie Hammer in Luca Guadagnino’s most recent masterpiece. As Elio, an Jewish/Italian teenager who falls in love with the much older Oliver, an American tourist (Armie Hammer), Timothee carries every scene he is in. It’s a leading performance as strong as last year's THE WITCH.  Best known for his TV work on Homeland, the next few years will see a lot more of the young star on the independent scene. He is starring in Blacklist script HOT SUMMER NIGHTS and is part of the ensemble in Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD as well as Scott Cooper’s HOSTILES.

Melanie Lynskey as protagonist Ruth Kimke in Macon Blair’s I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE. Melanie truly had her work cut out for her in taking on the lead role in Macon Blair’s directorial debut. Macon, an actor himself, broke out in Sundance 2013’s BLUE RUIN, a film he starred in with frequent collaborator Jeremy Saulnier. The two having been friends for years have a strong bound. Not the case for Melanie whose protagonist had to be both fun and funny as well as vulnerable and scared. Without such a wide range of emotions the film would not have been as strong a debut and her ability to do this without such a close working relationship makes her performance even more commendable. Her journey to recover her property which was stolen, in the process befriending a neighbor (played by Elijah Wood) and discover her inner strength is the strongest female genre lead to break out of the festival since Jennifer Lawrence in WINTERS BONE. 

Kumail Nanijiani as himself in Michael Showwalter's THE BIG SICK. Kumail has been making audiences laugh for years on the stand up circuit. He’s already known for his strong work on the small screen as part of the ensemble of HBO’s Silicon Valley. But, this leading performance anchoring a film based on his courtship with his now wife (which the two co-wrote) won over audiences. The premiere was followed by a standing ovation that lead to an all night bidding war resulting in the film selling to Amazon for $12.5 million. It was one of the biggest sales of this year’s festival. None of this would have been remotely possible without Kumail’s vulnerability and humanizing role. His wife (played by Zoe Kazan) spends a majority of the film hospitalized in a coma with her parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) stepping in to decide how best to treat their daughter with Kumail understandably out of his depth.   

Lakeith Stanfield as protagonist Colin Warner in Matt Ruskin's CROWN HEIGHTS. Lakieth has made a career as a stand out supporting player in both film (2015’s SHORT TERM 12) and TV (this year’s Atlanta). He could have coasted on his laurels and had a fine career as a bit player. Thankfully he didn’t as he took on the role of wrongly convicted youth Colin Werner who spent over twenty years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Lakeith brilliantly channeled the rage, frustration and fear of a young immigrant from Trinidad who was tied to the shooting of a neighbor in 1980’s Brooklyn NY. His humanity, hope, and struggles to continue to live, stay true to himself and connected to his family was the heart and soul of this harrowing tale. Without such a wide range this would have just been another run of the mill biopic but Lakeith pulled from his history of strong supporting roles to elevate this material.  

Danielle MacDonald as protagonist Patricia Dombrowski aka "Killa P" aka "Patti Cake$" in Geremy Jasper's PATTI CAKE$. Accolades are one thing, but money is the great equalizer and PATTI CAKE$' sale to Fox Searchlight for $10 million is proof that Danielle’s performance is one of the strongest this year. The native Australian actress is so convincing as a New Jersey native that the film has been getting strong comparison to the classic hip-hop festival breakout HUSTLE & FLOW. Her strong lyrics, tough grit working several jobs and relationship with her male musical partners was the heart and soul of this musical odyssey through the world just the other side of Manhattan. MacDonald was the anchor, which made all this world. Her vulnerability as a daughter and granddaughter attempting to keep her family together while striving for her dreams of becoming a superstar MC whose persona is larger than her size. She is definitely one to watch, especially given that she isn’t represented by a major agency yet. 

Garance Marillier as protagonist Justine in Julia Ducournau's RAW. Going off to college is tough on anyone. The shift from youth at home to a free world of adulthood, the lack of structure that university provides can be a shock to the system for anyone -- let alone a monstrous cannibal. Recent years have seen a move towards more realistic, heartfelt and dramatic horror in the genre field. RAW is France’s answer to the conversation started in Sweden with LET THE RIGHT ONE IN almost ten years ago. None of this would have been possible without Garance’s breakout performance as the young woman discovering her new life away at school. The role and material is tough and demanding, yet Garance never seems out of her depth. She is beautiful, vulnerable, powerful and scary all while remaining human. A monster for the ages and a protagonist of our times – a woman embracing the changes she encounters upon entering the world of adulthood.

Directors to Watch

Geremy Jasper for writing and directing PATTI CAKE$. Geremy is already an accomplished music video director having been nominated for VMA’s for his work with Florence + the Machine and Selena Gomez. He is also a member of the Sundance writing and directing labs where he developed his first feature. A life long music freak Geremy wrote all the lyrics for his debut film PATTI CAKE$ which chronicles the life of a female MC in New Jersey. Its one of the strongest debuts in the genre since HUSTLE + FLOW and sold for $10 million to Fox Searchlight. His style is drawing comparison to that films writer/director Craig Brewer with its stripped-down, no-holds-barred look at the dog-eat-dog street world of blue collar hip-hop. 

Marti Noxon for writing and directing TO THE BONE. Marti is a force to be reckoned with on the small screen. Cutting her teeth as a writer on Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she went onto co-create the show UnReal, an adaptation of a short film. That process allowed her to hone her directing chops taking on pivotal episodes of the show (now in its third season on Lifetime). For her feature debut, Noxon set about chronicling the struggles of a young woman with an eating disorder and the painful process that lifestyle entails. Drawing from her own past, her funny and heartfelt look at an all-too-real and painful disease was both heartwarming and bone-chilling in its delicate handling of the material. She is a creator to watch in either arena.

Taylor Sheridan for writing and directing WIND RIVER. Taylor started his career as an actor on the first two seasons of Sons of Anarchy. He wrote lines for his character before scripting whole episodes of the show. Realizing that many of his favorite roles -- tough, no-nonsense protagonists who took on the system they were forced to live in -- were no longer being written on the big screen, Taylor sought to fix that. He went on to script SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER. Having found success with those scripts, he turned his attention to directing, bringing along many of his collaborators (like producers Basil Iwanyk and Peter Berg, and actors Jon Bernthal and Gil Birmingham) for this first outing in the director’s chair. The film is an extension of his work on the page, proving he has the chops to direct his fellow actors. His narrative of timeless characters and themes butting up against a ripped-from-the-headlines world where good and bad still battle for dominance is made only stronger by his deft hand as director.

Writers to Watch 

 Macon Blair for his directorial debut I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE. Frequent Jeremy Saulnier collaborator and actor-turned-writer/director Macon is no stranger to Sundance. The X factor for him this year was forging out on his own with his directorial debut. Macon’s script was fun, funny and surreal in its look at the lengths a young woman will go to retrieve her stolen items. Like BLUE RUIN, it’s a strong debut that turns its lens on an unlikely action heroine. The dark balanced out with this great human touch. It's a strong debut for a fantastic storyteller. There is no wonder this was already picked up by Netflix and an award winner at the festival with its Death Note-by-way-of-the-Duplass Brothers mix. Action/comedy. 

Kevin Costello + Kyle Mooney for BRIGSBY BEAR, which Kyle starred in for director Dave McCary. This trio has a long working relationship on SNL where Kyle is a featured player, Kevin a staff writer and Dave a director. This collaboration is evident in their feature debut. The film is such a fun, funny and heartfelt look at the communities created and relationships maintained by the creative process. This is such a hard tone to hit without becoming campy or corny, and these guys nailed it. Kevin and Dave's partnership is reminiscent of Derek + Colin's in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. Their future seems just as bright now that Sony Pictures Classic has picked up the comedy.

Cory Finley for THOROUGHBRED, which he also directed. Cory has already established himself as a strong voice in the theatre world. Bret Easton Ellis captured the dark side of 1980s brat pack culture with Less Than Zero, Chuck Palahniuk did it with 90s misguided youths with Fight Club and here now Cory has weaved similar magic with millennials out for revenge in his NEXT debut. It’s a smart, taught thriller that shows the complexities of female friendship in the modern age where money might buy many things but not happiness.  Cory is an exciting writer on the horizon as he transitions from the stage to the screen. Thriller. 



A GHOST STORY directed and written by David Lowery. The film stars Casey Affleck + Rooney Mara. Synopsis: This is the story of a ghost and the house he haunts.


THE BIG SICK directed by Michael Showalter. Written by Emily V. Gordon + Kumail Nanjiani. The film stars Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. Synopsis: A couple deals with their cultural differences as their relationship grows.

CROWN HEIGHTS directed and written by Matt Ruskin. The film stars Lakeith Stanfield, Nestor Carbonell, and Bill Camp. Synopsis: When Colin Warner was wrongfully convicted of murder, his best friend Carl King devoted his life to proving his innocence.

LANDLINE directed by Gillian Robespierre. Written by Elisabeth Holm + Gillian Robespierre.  The film stars Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, Finn Wittrock, Jay Duplass, and John Turturro. Synopsis: In 1995, a teenager living with her sister and parents in Manhattan discovers that her father is having an affair.


DAYVEON directed by Amman Abbasi. Written by Steven Renee + Amman Abbasi. The film stars Devin Blackmon, Dontrell Bright, and Lachion Buckingham. Synopsis: In the wake of his older brother's death, 13-year-old Dayveon spends the sweltering summer days roaming his rural Arkansas town. When he falls in with a local gang, he becomes drawn to the camaraderie and violence of their world.

Focus Features 

THOROUGHBRED directed and written by Cory Finley. The film stars Anton Yelchin, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Olivia Cooke. Synopsis: Two teenage girls in suburban Connecticut rekindle their unlikely friendship after years of growing apart. In the process, they learn that neither is what she seems to be, and that a murder might solve both of their problems.

Fox Searchlight 

PATTI CAKE$, directed and written by Geremy Jasper. The film stars Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett and Siddharth Dhananjay. Synopsis: Straight out of Jersey comes Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Killa P, a.k.a. Patti Cake$, an aspiring rapper fighting through a world of strip malls and strip clubs on an unlikely quest for glory.

Gunpowder and Sky 

THE LITTLE HOURS directed and written by Jeff Baena. The film stars Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, and Nick Offerman. Synopsis: A young servant fleeing from his master takes refuge at a convent full of emotionally unstable nuns in the middle ages.

IFC Midnight 

KILLING GROUND directed and written by Damien Power. The film stars Harriet Dyer, Stephen Hunter, and Tiarnie Coupland. Synopsis: A couples camping trip turns into a frightening ordeal when they stumble across the scene of a horrific crime.


BEACH RATS directed and written by Eliza Hittman. The film stars Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, and Kate Hodge
Synopsis: An aimless teenager on the outer edges of Brooklyn struggles to escape his bleak home life and navigate questions of self-identity, as he balances his time between his delinquent friends, a potential new girlfriend, and older men he meets online.

INGRID GOES WEST directed by Matt Spicer. Written by David Branson Smith + Matt Spicer. The film stars Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, and Billy Magnussen. Synopsis: Ingrid Thorburn, a mentally disturbed young woman, becomes obsessed with Taylor Sloane, a social media star who appears to have the perfect life. But when Ingrid decides to drop everything and move west to befriend Taylor, her behavior turns unsettling and increasingly dangerous.

ROXANNE ROXANNE directed and written by Michael Larnell. The film stars Chanté Adams, Mahershala Ali, Nia Long, Elvis Nolasco, Kevin Phillips, and Shenell Edmonds. Synopsis: In the early 1980s in the most feared battle MC in Queens, New York was a fierce teenage girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders. At the age of 14, Lolita "Roxanne Shanté" Gooden was well on her way to becoming a hip-hop legend as she hustled to provide for her family while defending herself from the dangers of the streets of the Queensbridge Projects in NYC.

BERLIN SYNDROME directed by Cate Shortland. Written by Shaun Grant and Melanie Joosten. The film stars Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, and Lucie Aron. Synopsis: A passionate holiday romance leads to an obsessive relationship, when an Australian photojournalist wakes one morning in a Berlin apartment and is unable to leave.

FUN MOM DINNER directed by Althea Jones. Written by Julie Rudd. The film stars Toni Collette, Katie Aselton, Bridget Everett, Molly Shannon, Adam Scott, and Adam Levine. Synopsis: Four moms whose only common ground is their kids' preschool class, decide to get together for a harmless "fun mom dinner.” (Theatrical rights bought by Momentum Pictures)

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES directed and written by Jim Strouse. The film stars Jessica Williams, Chris O’Dowd, Lakeith Stanfeild, and Noel Wells. Synopsis: An aspiring playwright in New York strikes up a friendship with a guy while on the rebound from a break-up.

MUDBOUND directed by Dee Rees. Written by Virgil Williams & Dee Rees. The film stars Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Garrett Hedlund, and Jason Mitchell. Synopsis: Two men return home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi where they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to life after war.

TO THE BONE directed and written by Marti Noxon. The film stars Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, and Liana Liberato. Synopsis: A young woman is dealing with anorexia. She meets an unconventional doctor who challenges her to face her condition and embrace life.

The Orchard 

THE HERO directed by Brett Haley. Written by Marc Basch + Brett Haley. The film stars Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, and Krysten Ritter. Synopsis: An ailing movie star comes to terms with his past and mortality.

RLJ Entertainment 

BUSHWICK directed by Cary Murnion + Jonathan Milott. Written by Nick Damici + Graham Reznick. The film stars Dave Bautista, Brittany Snow, and Christian Navarro. Synopsis: When a Texas military force invades their Brooklyn neighborhood, 20-year-old Lucy and war veteran Stupe must depend on each other to survive.

Roadside Attractions
BEATRIZ AT DINNER directed by Miguel Arteta. Written by Mike White. The film stars Salma Hayek, Chloe Sevigny, John Lithgow, and Connie Britton. Synopsis: A holistic medicine practitioner attends a wealthy client's dinner party after her car breaks down.

Sony Pictures Classics 

BRIGSBY BEAR directed by Dave McCrary. Written by Kevin Costello + Kyle Mooney. The film stars Mark Hamill, Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, and Kyle Mooney.
Synopsis: Brigsby Bear Adventures is a children's TV show produced for an audience of one: James. When the show abruptly ends, James's life changes forever, and he sets out to finish the story himself.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME directed and written by Luca Guadagnino. The film stars Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, and Victoria Du Bois. Synopsis: A romance between a seventeen year-old boy and a summer guest at his parents' cliffside mansion on the Italian Riviera.

NOVITIATE, directed and written by Maggie Betts. The film stars Diana Agron, Morgan Saylor, and Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, and Denis O’Hare. Synopsis: Set in the early 1960s and during the era of Vatican II, a young woman in training to become a nun struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality.


David Whitney is an LA-based producer. He previously worked for Lionsgate, selling the rights to Academy Award winner CRASH and several installments of the SAW series, as well as for Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers. David brings a personal love of graphic novels, a passion for manga, and the desire to adapt both for the screen.

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