On a recent Screen Talk podcast, producers Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman said they specifically tried to avoid overhyping T-Street’s film “Fair Play” before it sold to Netflix for $20 million and became Sundance 2023’s biggest sale. Elsewhere, Lily Gladstone took time at the IndieWire Honors gala to champion her competition title “Fancy Dance,” which to this day inexplicably hasn’t sold despite all the praise around it in last year’s competition slate.
Turns out, it was “Fancy Dance,” not “Fair Play,” that we included in last year’s Hot Sales Titles gallery. That shows how unpredictable Sundance can be, and why it’s so exciting. Surprise breakout hits pop every year. Movies with big star power don’t get scooped up by a streamer and give the little guys a chance to make a bid. And titles with all the buzz lose a lot of steam once audiences have finally seen them, or because of financial complications that reveal the cold, hard truth of the business.
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We don’t have a crystal ball for what will sell big (or at all), but we can report on the movies that agents, publicists, producers, and distributors — all of whom have a vested interest in what they’re drumming up excitement for — keep telling us about. It’s another robust year, in which over 60 movies making their premieres are coming in without distribution. Still, that could lead to a lot of sales and a lot movies that never find homes.
Some will seem obvious, like movies with Kristen Stewart or Will Ferrell or a new movie from Steven Soderbergh. Others are deeper cuts, like a documentary about moths. Some will sell for seven or eight figures to a streamer, while others will go to boutique distributors and will, for them, be quiet hits. Here are the 18 sales titles (in alphabetical order) we wanted to highlight.
“A Real Pain” (U.S. Dramatic)
Jesse Eisenberg’s sophomore feature “A Real Pain” is a road trip movie that pairs him with Kieran Culkin. Several sources talked about the film’s warmth and charm and how it could easily be a target for a traditional theatrical player looking to make a splash.
“Between the Temples” (U.S. Dramatic)
The consensus seems to be that despite a long career as an indie mainstay, director Nathan Silver is finally taking a step forward with “Between the Temples,” assembling an impressive and idiosyncratic cast that includes Jason Schwartzman, Carol Kane, and Robert Smigel. The film was shot on 16mm, it subverts expectations of a rom-com, and at least one source said it puts a modern-day Jewish twist on a “Harold and Maude” story.
This year’s Sundance lineup features rock docs on everything and everyone from Lollapalooza, the “We Are the World” recording, Luther Vandross, and Brian Eno, but we’re going to throw our weight behind what’s likely to be the goofiest of the bunch with Chris Smith’s definitive look at New Wave weirdos Devo who, in 2023, celebrated their 50th anniversary.
“Didi” (U.S. Dramatic)
Director Sean Wang has made a name for himself working in both documentaries and in short films, and there’s a lot of curiosity around how he can bring his charm and personality to a narrative feature. “Didi” is a coming-of-age story about a Taiwanese American 13-year-old boy navigating the summer of 2008 before entering high school.
“Exhibiting Forgiveness” (U.S. Dramatic)
Titus Kaphar has done TED talks, received fellowships, and sold his artwork around the globe, but he turned to cinema to tell a more intimate, personal story about how painting can be an outlet for togetherness, forgiveness, and reconciling with the past. His debut feature stars André Holland, Andra Day, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, and has Derek Cianfrance and Stephanie Allain as some powerhouse producers. Jamie Patricof and Sean Cotton are also producers.
“Freaky Tales” (Premieres)
Several interested buyers name-dropped Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “Freaky Tales” to us as one to watch and that should be very well received. It’s an ’80s drama set in Oakland and split across four different stories that each blend genre, everything from Nazi skinheads to rap battles to Kung Fu. Having Pedro Pascal leading an impressive cast doesn’t hurt.
“It’s What’s Inside” (Midnight)
Greg Jardin has cut his teeth doing music videos and even promo videos for Netflix, but “It’s What’s Inside” is his debut feature on which he’s writing, directing, editing, even dabbling with some VFX and sound. It’s perhaps why it’s falling under the radar among an impressive Midnight slate this year. Producer William Rosenfeld tells us the film bends genres with thriller, comedy, some horror, and sex appeal, and he’s confident an A24 or Neon would know exactly what to do with it.
“Love Machina” (U.S. Documentary)
You may be sick of AI after it dominated 2023 as the tech buzzword of the year, but “Love Machina” is already sparking a lot of conversation with the potential for inspiration and controversy. It examines a married couple who commissioned an artificially intelligent robot way back in 2017 to preserve their love into the future. The press notes synopsis mentions everything from “cryopreservation, AI-powered digital consciousness, xenotransplantation, and space settlement,” so make of that what you will.
“Love Me” (U.S. Dramatic)
People have been watching and waiting for “Love Me” from Sam and Andy Zuchero for years, and to date all we have from it is a logline about a buoy and a satellite meeting online and falling in love. But distributors believe this one more than any at Sundance, with Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun starring, has all the ingredients to be a major, worldwide sale for an eager streamer.
“My Old Ass” (Premieres)
Megan Park, who won the top prize at SXSW for her debut “The Fallout” in 2021, directs her sophomore feature about an 18-year-old who meets her future self, naturally played by Aubrey Plaza, after tripping on mushrooms. Hype around it is that despite the fantastical premise, it’s a movie that unexpectedly tugs on heartstrings and stands out as one of the more mainstream entries in the slate. It will also get a big boost from Barbie herself, as Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap is producing.
“Nocturnes” (World Cinema Documentary)
The producing team behind one of Sundance’s biggest documentary sales ever, “Fire of Love,” is backing this World Cinema doc competition title about moths in a remote Eastern Himalayan forest that few humans have been able to visit. Producer Jessica Harrop of Sandbox Films tells IndieWire they believe the film, which grew out of a Sundance grant program, is built on its sound design, becoming engrossed in the long takes and sounds of fluttering birds and moth wings, making it prime for a theatrical experience and sale.
Steven Soderbergh is back at Sundance 35 years after “sex, lies, and videotape,” but he didn’t just bring any movie. Michael Sugar of Sugar23, which is repping the film, tells IndieWire that “Presence” is risky and experimental but is also beautiful, powerful, and unexpected in its twists and turns. He also says they’ve already drummed up a ton of in-bound interest despite that it hasn’t screened, and Sundance was the spot to really start a conversation about it.
“Skywalkers: A Love Story” (U.S. Documentary)
Paging NatGeo. At least one distributor told us “Skywalkers” gives off serious “Fire of Love” vibes, a competition doc that blends thriller and heist elements and has a romance at its core that could make it a major surprise documentary sale this year.
“Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” (Premieres)
Heartwarming biopic docs with a superhero twist are already a good bet for a sale, but the producers behind “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” bring their own weight. Connor Schell’s Words + Pictures backed “The Last Dance” and “OJ: Made in America,” and Lizzie Gillett’s Misfits Entertainment previously sold “The Territory” out of Sundance to NatGeo and “The Contestant” at this year’s TIFF to Hulu.
“The Moogai” (Midnight)
The producers of this film were behind “The Babadook” and in 2023 sold “Talk to Me” to A24, the biggest box office hit to premiere at last year’s Sundance. They’re back with another smart indie horror film from Australia. “The Moogai” is a genre commentary loaded with subtext about the lost generation of Aboriginal children who were stolen from their indigenous families by white colonizers.
“Veni Vidi Vici” (World Dramatic)
IndieWire exclusively shared the first trailer for “Veni Vidi Vici,” which feels like “Succession” in German. It’s yet another satire about the uber-wealthy at a time when we’re not short on those, but this one is playing on Day 1 of the festival and should set the tone with its dark humor and absurdist tone.
“Will & Harper” (Premieres)
A road trip movie with Will Ferrell sounds like a perfect Sundance movie and a no-brainer for a sale, but it’s actually a documentary about how Ferrell’s friend of 30 years, long-time “SNL” writer Harper Steele, came out as a trans woman. It’s a heartwarming story and a movie about friendship as they take to 19 cities to unpack this new phase of their relationship.
“Cat Person” starring Emilia Jones and directed by Susanna Fogel was one of our hot titles at last year’s Sundance, and the two are back with a film about whisteblower Reality Winner. But unlike the more dramatic Sydney Sweeney film “Reality,” “Winner” is described as a funny, idiosyncratic satire about an unlikely whistleblower.
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