2023 Sundance Film Festival Programmers Interview – The Hollywood Reporter

The Sundance Film Festival is heading back to Park City with a recently announced line-up that includes the latest feature from directors Nicole Holofcener and Ira Sachs, biodocs about Brooke Shields and Little Ricahrd, and adaptations of titles Cat Person and Eileen.

Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente, director of programming Kim Yutani, and senior programmer John Nein talked to The Hollywood Reporter about this year’s fest, from COVID contingencies to lessons learned from Jihad Rehab.

Heading into the fest this year, how did you all come to the decision of a hybrid model?  

VICENTE This seems to be the running question. We have two years of a digital festival. Last year we had designed a hybrid festival, but ended up having to pivot to online due to the rise of the Omicron. We felt that while we’re gonna prioritize in person, we also felt that we couldn’t turn our back on what proved to be a very successful platform for Sundance. We were able to launch incredible films, some which went on to win Oscars. The digital platform enabled us to get more reach and give more access to audiences that maybe didn’t think Sundance was for them. It’s gonna be a very robust offering. I think we have close to 80 films in the program that will be available for digital audiences.

Did you get any pushback from filmmakers or distributors about the digital offerings?

VICENTE That’s why we built in the flexibility. We don’t require digital screenings for the films in Premieres or Spotlight, so we had an opportunity to have conversations around what was the right section for the film. Also, what was the right way that the distributors wanted to bring out the films.

Compared to where we were this time last year, COVID is in a different place. But is there a world where the festival doesn’t happen in person?

VICENTE We definitely feel that we’re going to be in person. It’s very different; everyone has learned how to live with COVID and take the precautions that everyone needs to take. It’s going to be a personal choice to be there or not. We’re also putting, if needed, some measures in terms of capacity or masking. We believe that we’re going to be providing a very safe experience.

What were some of the topical or narrative trends you noticed in this year’s submissions?

VICENTE The work always reflects the world that we live in and the issues that we contend with, from the war in Ukraine to the protests in Iran to reproductive rights to other women’s issues.

YUTANI Something that was really significant this year was seeing three films made by Iranian women: The Persian Version, Joonam, and Shayda. These are three incredibly personal stories by the filmmakers and they really speak to the urgency of the moment. Individually, they are incredible films. Together, they create a larger conversation around what is happening to women globally and especially in Iran.

NEIN [The films] also reflect a lot of diasporic storytelling.

The majority of the films in the dramatic competition heading to the fest this year do not have distribution. Was that intentional?

YUTANI It’s something we talk about all the time as we go through the films. But it’s always about the balance of what goes into the program. There are films with distribution and then there are the films that are looking for sales. Our role at Sundance is looking at where we are in any given moment and being able to adapt; to be the festival that reflects the work that we’re seeing. But also hopefully [we can] use our platform to be able to influence where the industry is going.

NEIN Some of those exciting discovery filmmakers are films that do have distribution. In some cases, distributors are the ones developing audiences for fresh, independent, aueteur driven voices. I’m looking at a film like All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt in the U.S. competition, which is a committed, extraordinary poetic vision for a film. [A24 is distributing the film.] In some cases, there is work that does not have distribution. But in other cases, you see that those distributors themselves are taking risks with some of the work that they’re putting into the marketplace. And the festival offers an opportunity for launching those films.

VICENTE It’s also a great opportunity for people to come together to reflect on the state of the industry. There’s so much consolidation, it’s so important for us to contribute and provide a diverse ecosystem to bring new voices to the fold.

Sundance has long been a launchpad for docs, but non-fiction’s dominance in Hollywood has increased ten-fold in recent years. Has there also been a correlated increase in the docs that are being submitted?

YUTANI Every year we have the same problem where we face an embarrassment of riches with the documentaries that come our way from the U.S. perspective, but also from the international. Especially on the international side, these numbers have just been increasing over the years. I think a lot of that has to do with the success that has been happening after the exposure of these films to the U.S. market to the awards that the films we’ve shown have been getting.

After it screened at the festival last year, the doc Jihad Rehab prompted a lot of conversation and criticism, from representation to ethics concerns. What is your process for vetting sensitive documentary films and have you implemented any changes since the response to Jihad Rehab?

VICENTE We always learn, and we’ve learned so much from the conversation that took place after the film was shown and the many perspectives about that film. There are things that have been in conversation for a while now around the safety of subjects and care of duty, so we changed something in the way that we asked those questions in the submission form. But, again, this actually had been in discussion before [Jihad Rehab], but this was the year that we implemented it. The festival is the perfect place to show films that might be taking risks and be thought-provoking. That’s part of what we do is to spark dialogue around important questions for the field and for our times.

What was changed about the submission process?

YUTANI We added a question to our submission form that asked film teams to explain what their relationship was to their subjects and what their duty of care and safety-of-subjects plan was. Those answers were really something that we brought to our programming process and talked about in depth.

Joanna, you mentioned consolidation and the state of the industry. What is Sundance’s place within the entrainment industry as it continues to go through upheaval in the wake of COVID?

VICENTE We’re a very important part of the ecosystem. Not just the work that we do year-round in terms of supporting the artists, but having this incredible platform for films. At the center of everything we do is the work of the artists.

The Sundance Film Festival will take place in Park City from Jan 19 to 29, with additional virtual offerings.

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