Sundance Director Eugene Hernandez Contends With AI Storytelling, In-Person-Only Screenings at 2024 Festival

Eugene Hernandez has reached the top of the mountain.

The journalist turned nonprofit executive has spent decades rising through the ranks of the American independent film scene. This January he assumes his seat at its apex: as the director of the Sundance Film Festival.

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Hernandez, the co-founder of IndieWire and longtime leader of Film at Lincoln Center, got the coveted job in late 2022. But his official duties begin with this year’s festival, the 40th edition of the annual celebration of film that kicks off Jan. 18. He still remembers his first time in the luxury ski town of Park City, Utah, watching Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi” in 1993.

“It all feels full circle,” Hernandez tells Variety, adding that he shed tears when Sundance CEO Joana Vicente called to offer the job.

Sundance remains the preeminent film festival for spotlighting new talent. This year, the group received 17,000 submissions, many of them from emerging moviemakers hoping to establish themselves in the business. That’s the highest number of applications in festival history. Hernandez and more than a dozen individual programmers, including the well-respected director of programming, Kim Yutani, have watched every hour of those submissions. His priority, he says, is to ensure that Sundance remains a place of discovery in an historically volatile landscape for movies. “I want to honor the democratic process that Kim and the team have designed and also bring an openness and curiosity,” he says.

With the unveiling of his inaugural lineup in December, Hernandez flexed a few different muscles — there’s a smattering of big-name talent and directors (par for the course at Sundance) paired with an exciting field of first-time filmmakers and a few oddball surprises. Kristen Stewart, Pedro Pascal, Kieran Culkin and Mary J. Blige are all attending with projects, and veteran directors like Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater are returning to the fest.

“Eugene has this ability to make you feel cared for and seen, which is quite unique and perfect for someone taking on this role,” says Ira Sachs, acclaimed filmmaker of last year’s Sundance breakout “Passages.” Sachs says Hernandez has a keen interest in “both the mechanics of the industry and the quality of the content.”

And Hernandez is instituting some important changes. Sundance has been hosting a virtual program since coronavirus wreaked havoc around the globe, and last year many sales agents were miffed that potential buyers could screen movies from their laptops in Los Angeles instead of on the ground in Park City with a full audience. The festival listened to the complaints and will wait nearly a week after the event begins to make films available for digital screening.

“A key decision on our end was to distinguish the in-person and the online,” Hernandez says. “To give each film its chance to get that big first look.”

The gig also requires taking some risks. This year, Sundance will welcome artificial intelligence into the fold. The notion of artists collaborating with — or, as many heated predictions say, being fully replaced by — AI was a major point of contention between actors, writers and studios during the 2023 labor strikes that gripped Hollywood. Gary Hustwit’s documentary “Eno,” about visionary music producer Brian Eno, will use generative AI for visuals (creating a completely new set of images every time the movie is screened). Similarly, “Being (the Digital Griot),” by Rashad Newsome, will use datasets from Black theorists, poets and activists.

“You have artists collaborating with AI to not just inform but to alter the way stories and storytelling are explored,” Hernandez says. “Yes, there’s a bigger conversation about AI, but artists are looking at how to harness this.”

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