Hollywood decamps for Park City this week, braving snow drifts and thin air in a quest to find the next indie breakouts, Oscar contenders and buzzy horror hits.
Yes, Sundance has returned in all its mountain-side glory, and with it comes the expectation that with enough tenacity and some big checks, studios and streamers will land the next “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Brooklyn,” “Manchester by the Sea” or “The Big Sick” (to rattle off just a few of the festival films that have sparked all-night bidding wars).
More from Variety
Of course, not every heated battle for the next big Sundance-bred hit leads to commercial success and Oscar glory (“Hamlet 2” or “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” know a bit about that). Even some of the 2023 films that landed major deals, such as John Carney’s “Flora and Son” or the Anne Hathaway-led “Eileen,” received a muted reception when they made their way into the wider world.
Put simply, the economics of independent filmmaking have never been more challenging. And while streaming services have removed some box office pressure, the vast ocean of content available to consumers makes it harder for idiosyncratic fare to rise to the top. So, all the excitement surrounding these sales comes with a warning.
That said, here are 16 movies that seem well-positioned to be winners at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
A Real Pain
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kieran Culkin, Will Sharpe, Jennifer Grey, Kurt Egyiawan, Liza Sadovy, Daniel Oreskes
Director: Jesse Eisenberg
Sales Agent: CAA/WME
Why Buyers Are Circling: The combination of Eisenberg and Culkin, actors who specialize in a certain kind of bruised intelligence and simmering neurosis, seems perfectly suited to this story of cousins whose tour through Poland in honor of their grandmother sparks some serious family rivalry. What more could you want from this pair?
Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story
Directors: Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui
Sales Agent: Cinetic Media
Why Buyers Are Circling: The definitive portrait of Christopher Reeve’s astonishing, tragic and ultimately inspirational life is told with cooperation of the actor’s family and uses a rich well of personal archive material. This documentary should be one of the biggest sales of the festival — sight unseen, several studios and streamers were already planning to bid aggressively on this one — and seems to have serious awards potential. Not only does it shine a light on Reeve’s rise to superstardom as Superman, but it also documents his fight to find a cure for spinal cord injuries after he became a quadriplegic following a horse riding accident. At a dark time in the world, people need heroes like Reeve.
Between the Temples
Cast: Carol Kane, Jason Schwartzman, Dolly De Leon, Robert Smigel
Director: Nathan Silver
Sales Agent: CAA/Anonymous Content
Why Buyers Are Circling: Kane and Schwartzman are a match made in comedy heaven in this story of a depressed cantor and his 70-something bat mitzvah student. The duo form a surprising bond, one that should delight fans of two actors who are given an opportunity to shine in the center of the frame — a rarity given that they are usually seen on screen in colorful supporting roles.
Directors: Natalie Rae and Angela Patton
Sales Agent: CAA/ Submarine
Why Buyers Are Circling: Even icy hearts at Sundance will melt at this moving documentary about young girls who prepare for a special dance with their incarcerated fathers. The film, chronicling eight years, combats harmful stereotypes about those doing time, but includes enough dad jokes to lighten the mood. That said, don’t forget the tissues.
Cast: André Holland, John Earl Jelks, Andra Day, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor
Director: Titus Kaphar
Sales Agent: UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Holland arrived as a major talent to watch with the 2016 Oscar winner “Moonlight.” His new film offers him the kind of meaty part that could generate some awards heat. Director Titus Kaphar brings the tale of an art world star (Holland) whose past shows up on his doorstep via an addict father who hopes to make amends.
Director: Gary Hustwit
Sales Agent: Submarine
Why Buyers Are Circling: “Eno” may well be one of the toughest sales of the festival, but that’s what makes it one of the most exciting prospects. It’s a documentary about legendary musician and producer Brian Eno, who has collaborated with the likes of Talking Heads, Devo, Coldplay and U2. The important catch is that the film uses generative artificial intelligence for its visuals – meaning the finished film will render differently every time its screened. A.I. was a major point of contention in recent labor strikes involving Hollywood writers and actors. The technology could be an exciting draw for a nontraditional buyer – think YouTube, Conde Nast Entertainment and the like.
Cast: Pedro Pascal, Jay Ellis, Normani Kordei Hamilton, Dominique Thorne, Ben Mendelsohn, Angus Cloud
Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Sales Agent: WME
Why Buyers Are Circling: Boden and Fleck, the filmmaking team behind the beloved indie “Half Nelson” and the billion-dollar blockbuster “Captain Marvel,” have assembled a compelling cast, including “internet boyfriend” Pascal and Cloud, the “Euphoria” star who died last year. “Freaky Tales” unfolds over a single day in Oakland, Calif., and tells four interconnected stories, involving everything from a weary hitman, an NBA phenom and Nazi-battling street punks to a rising hip-hop star.
Directors: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw
Sales Agent: Submarine
Why Buyers Are Circling: The filmmakers behind “The Truffle Hunters” return with this intimate look at a community of Argentine cowboys and cowgirls, known as Gauchos. The movie’s majestic setting and stunning cinematography should attract indie studios or streamers looking for some elevated arthouse fare from proven cinematic masters.
Cast: David Schwimmer, Gaby Hoffmann, Dominic Fike, Talia Ryder, Jena Malone
Director: Jack Begert
Sales Agent: CAA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Schwimmer skewers the dark side of Hollywood as a screenwriter going through a midlife crisis when he collides with two taco truck entrepreneurs (“Euphoria” breakout Fike and Ryder), who also happen to be opioid addicts. The Darren Aronofsky-produced showbiz satire is the feature debut of Berger, a splashy music video director who has worked with Kendrick Lamar, SZA and Doja Cat.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Steven Yeun
Directors: Sam and Andy Zuchero
Sales Agent: WME/ 2AM
Why Buyers Are Circling: Stewart, in one of the two films she’s headlining at this year’s festival, and Yeun, fresh off his Emmy win in the Netflix series “Beef,” are a compelling duo in this sci-fi romance drama from up-and-coming directors Sam and Andy Zuchero. The “Wall-E” meets “Her” tale takes place long after humanity’s extinction and follows a buoy and a satellite who meet online and fall in love.
My Old Ass
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Maddie Ziegler
Director: Megan Park
Sales Agent: CAA
Why Buyers Are Circling: If the film title isn’t provocative enough, the presence of “The White Lotus” favorite Plaza and backing of Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap, the production company behind the summer sensation “Barbie” and much-talked-about “Saltburn,” should intrigue buyers. The endearing coming of age comedy takes place the summer before Elliot heads to college. She comes face-to-face with her older self after doing mushrooms, sparking a funny journey of self-discovery before leaving her childhood home. What a long strange trip that promises to be.
Cast: Lucy Liu, Julia Fox, Chris Sullivan, Callina Lang
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Sales Agent: Sugar 23
Why Buyers Are Circling: This twisty thriller (would you expect anything else from Soderbergh, an auteur who relishes unwinding narrative knots) is basically a haunted house flick, only this time it’s told from the perspective of the haunter and not the haunted. Thirty-five years after Soderbergh helped put Sundance on the map with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” he returns to the mountainside festival. If “Presence” lives up to its hype, he may go back down the mountain with another big deal.
Cast: June Squibb, Richard Roundtree, Fred Hechinger, Parker Posey and Clark Gregg
Director: Josh Margolin
Sales Agent: CAA
Why Buyers Are Circling: At 94, Squibb gets to channel her inner action hero playing a grandmother who takes on the phone scammers who conned her. This revenge comedy sounds like a crowd pleaser, as well as an opportunity for the scene-stealing Squibb, who earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination for “Nebraska,” to get a starring role worthy of her muscular talents.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan
Director: Nora Fingscheidt
Sales Agent: CAA/ Protagonist
Why Buyers Are Circling: The 29-year-old Ronan already has four Oscar nominations under her belt, so her name alone is enough to drum up excitement. Adapted from Amy Liptrot’s best-selling memoir, “The Outrun” centers on Rona, a recovering alcoholic who returns home to Scotland after spending a decade in London. It’s a departure for Ronan, who has primarily endeared herself to audiences through period dramas like “Little Women” and “Brooklyn.”
Will & Harper
Cast: Will Ferrell, Harper Steele
Director: Josh Greenbaum
Sales Agent: Submarine/ UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Ferrell, a comedic force in “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman,” isn’t necessarily the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of documentaries. But the consummate funnyman shares a personal side in this intimate, heartfelt story directed by Greenbaum, the filmmaker behind the kooky comedy “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar.” It follows Ferrell and his best friend of 30 years as they go on a cross-country road trip after Steele comes out as a trans woman.
Veni Vidi Vici
Cast: Laurence Rupp, Ursina Lardi, Olivia Goschler, Markus Schleinzer
Directors: Daniel Hoesl and Julia Niemann
Sales Agent: Magnify
Why Buyers Are Circling: This satire of the one percent goes for the jugular. It follows a family so powerful, so insulated by its extreme wealth, that the billionaire clan can literally get away with murder. Think “American Psycho” meets “Succession.” Early word on this one is that it will be polarizing but headline-grabbing, and that kind of controversy is always good for driving up a price.
Best of Variety