When Sundance Film Festival programmers announced that North America’s preeminent showcase for indie cinema was canceling all on-the-ground operations, scrapping the “hybrid” model and going strictly virtual for a second consecutive year, the Hollywood hand-wringing began in earnest. Could ’22 festival offerings beamed onto laptops and AirPlay-ed into living rooms trigger a spasm of big-ticket deal-making in line with the one that characterized 2019’s Sundance? Or would things unfold more like last year when just a few splashy titles sold for relatively gigantic sums of money but in-festival acquisitions overall remained sluggish?
This year’s Sundance was notably short on the kind of distribution-deal battles royale that drove up the price for last Sundance’s musical family-dramedy CODA to a festival high of $25 million. And big spenders from recent years such as A24, Amazon Studios, and Neon (which spent a then-record $17,000,000.69 to snap up Palm Springs in 2020) kept their wallets closed for the duration of the festival’s 11-day run, which ended Sunday.
But thanks to a late-inning wave of acquisitions including the Dakota Johnson–starring coming-out romp Am I OK?, the Obamas-imprimatur doc Descendant, and the Emma Thompson romantic-comedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande respectively selling off to Warner Bros.–HBO Max, Netflix, and Searchlight Pictures during the fest’s waning days, this second COVID-installment of Sundance — with its “spaceship” clubhouse and VR premiere after-parties — generated a decent if not exactly robust raft of sales spread across the art-house distributor diaspora.
For a second year running, Apple notched the festival’s biggest sale: $15 million for the rom-com crowd pleaser Cha Cha Real Smooth, the second feature from writer-director-lead Cooper Raiff, which also claimed the audience award in the U.S. Dramatic competition Friday. Netflix, Sony Pictures Classics, Amazon, and Paramount, among others, duked it out for worldwide rights to the documentary Fire of Love, which ultimately sold to National Geographic for mid-seven figures in yet another indicator of the N95 era’s gusto for nonfiction feature films. And a “competitive bidding situation” — something short of a bidding war — yielded rights for the Karen Gillan–starring clone thriller Dual to RLJE.
Herewith, these are the Sundance movies you can expect to see in theaters and on streaming platforms over the coming months:
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (dir. Sophie Hyde)
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures/Hulu
In what arguably arrived as the fest’s feel-good breakout, Emma Thompson plays a retired schoolteacher who hires a charming young gigolo (Daryl McCormack) to provide the kind of good sex that has eluded her for her whole life.
Price: $7.5 million
Dual (dir. Riley Stearns)
A mordant sci-fi drama starring Karen Gillan as a terminally ill woman who has herself cloned in an attempt to assuage her family’s impending grief. But when her terminal disease goes into remission, she discovers she must fight the genetic doppelgänger to the death — the winner continuing to live “her” life.
Price: A “low-mid-seven figure” deal
The Territory (dir. Alex Pritz)
Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films
Produced by Darren Aronofsky, this lushly visual, vérité-style doc chronicles a tiny group of Indigenous tribesmen as they face off against illegal loggers and non-native farmers in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
Speak No Evil (dir. Christian Tafdrup)
Blending “terror, horror and the mundanities of human interaction,” this genre mash-up follows two families — one Dutch, one Danish — on vacation together in Tuscany. Cross-cultural misunderstandings spin deliriously and menacingly out of hand.
Living (dir. Oliver Hermanus)
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
A culturally reimagined version of Akira Kuwosawa’s classic 1952 meaning-of-life drama Ikiru, this time written by Nobel Prize–winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. Bill Nighy portrays a repressed English bureaucrat whose terminal diagnosis (yes, another one of those) compels startling new behavior — a last-ditch bid to reclaim the life he never lived on his own terms.
Price: $5 million
Fire of Love (dir. Sara Dosa)
Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films
From the ’70s to the ’90s, married French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Kraftt circumnavigated the globe in singular pursuit of the shared passion: filming, photographing, and conducting experiments around volcanic eruptions and lava flows. This poetic doc details the love match that underpinned their scientific study — en route to untimely deaths caused by a volcano.
Price: A “mid-seven figure buy”
Cha Cha Real Smooth (dir. Cooper Raiff)
Distributor: Apple TV+
In his sophomore directorial feature, Raiff follows in the footsteps of fellow affable-yet-twee Sundance-anointed indie auteur-stars such as Zach Braff and Josh Radnor. He plays a recent college grad turned professional bar mitzvah hype man who falls hard for Dakota Johnson’s mom-of-an-autistic-teen character — creating unexpected complications for her impending nuptials to another man.
Price: $15 million
Descendant (dir. Margaret Brown)
This doc follows the inhabitants of Africatown, a tiny Alabama enclave settled by descendants of the Clotilda: the last known ship to transport enslaved human beings from Africa to the United States. The film won Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Creative Vision on Friday and will be “presented” by Michelle and Barack Obama’s Oscar-winning production company Higher Ground in conjunction with Netflix later this year.
2nd Chance (dir. Ramin Bahrani)
Distributor: Showtime Documentary Films
Oscar-nominated director Bahrani (99 Homes, The White Tiger) delves into documentary filmmaking, here chronicling Richard Davis, the maverick inventor of the bulletproof vest who had himself shot 192 times — !!! — to establish proof of concept.
Brian and Charles (dir. Jim Archer)
Distributor: Focus Features
A quirky comedy centering on a lonely inventor in rural Wales who fashions a seven-foot-tall, bow-tie-wearing, A.I. robot from spare parts and a washing machine.
Resurrection (dir. Andrew Semans)
Distributor: IFC and Shudder
Rebecca Hall stars as a single mother–career woman whose carefully ordered life — and grip on sanity — are thrown into chaos by the reemergence of a shadowy man (Tim Roth) who literally carries the horrors of her past.
Am I OK? (dirs. Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne)
Distributor: Warner Bros./HBO Max
A semi-autobiographical female buddy-comedy based on the life of screenwriter Lauren Pomerantz. It features Dakota Johnson as an indecisive Angeleno learning to navigate the dating scene after suddenly waking up to her sexual preference for women at age 32.
Watcher (dir. Chloe Okuno)
Distributor: IFC Midnight and Shudder
Most reviews use the word “Hitchcockian” to describe Okuno’s directorial debut: A slow-burn stalker thriller starring Maika Monroe as an isolated expat in Bucharest, Hungary, who may or may not be being pursued by a serial killer.