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Sundance 2016: a film festival pushes into the future

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A storied Hollywood institution is being rapidly transformed by Amazon, Netflix, and lots and lots of VR

Dave Mangels/Getty Images

It's very, very difficult to argue that film fests are the way of the future. I spent a lot of time at last year's Sundance Film Festival standing in lines, chugging Coke Zero, and trying to justify why exactly I'd taken a five-hour flight and a one-hour drive into the mountains of Utah to see some movies. I couldn't help but wonder what this would all be like if everyone in line could just stay in Brooklyn and Silver Lake apartments, open the Sundance app on their Apple TVs and watch all the selections on demand while eating takeout.

What would be lost, really? The scene? Sundance parties are almost unilaterally boring, publicist-packed affairs. (At least the ones I get invited to, ^__^; ) Schmooze factor? Ah yes, the grand irony of trying to schedule a meeting with someone in a tiny, overcrowded ski town when for the other 355 days of the year their office is a 20-minute drive from yours. Firsties? It can be lonely on indie-premiere mountain, there's only a certain amount of joy you can get from gushing over something the rest of your friends or colleagues won't see or even recognize the name of for at least another six months.

Why did I fly to Utah to watch some movies?

If you're just trying to cram as many films into your brain as possible — in other words, if you're the press — the hypothetical streaming scenario would seem to fulfill all your purposes. And in many cases that would be a nice cutting out of the middle man for Netflix and Amazon, two distributors who have made headlines by preordering some titles from the festival. But for the rest of the films, the on-the-ground reaction around them serves as a kind of bellwether for how much distributors and producers should value it and projects like it.

Last year's festival had a perfect A/B example with two quintessential Sundance coming-of-age stories: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Dope. Both were purchased at the festival; the former for about twice the amount of the latter in a record-breaking $12 million deal. Dope went on to be a sleeper hit, making back its budget and purchase price easily, and prompting hundreds of "more of this, please!" reviews. Earl died at the box office. Guess which one people gave a five-minute standing ovation to at Sundance?

The things people vocally and visibly value at Sundance can have a chain reaction that leads to real money and real shifts in what does and doesn't get made. Film fests may be inefficient, impractical affairs, but they're also where a lot of seeds are planted, and where the audience's reaction has a real impact. Despite their often questionable judgment, everyone here, whether press, filmmakers, producers or fans, want to see something new; to be pleasantly surprised. When something truly original comes along and is met with unanimous praise, like last year's Tangerine, you'll hear about it, and so will the powers that be in Hollywood.

Sundance's commitment to VR has grown exponentially

As if to fast-track that notion, Sundance has been exponentially ramping up their commitment to VR and New Media projects, and expanding the idea of what a filmmaker does. The Sundance Institute launched their VR residency in November, and this year's New Frontiers program is now as packed as any other section of the festival, with a diverse array of filmmakers enthusiastically throwing every idea of what VR could be against the wall. Last year, we had Oculus' giant robot and a flight over San Francisco, but this year, we have some gothic horror, a bona fide sci-fi thriller, and an ambitious two-part attempt to capture the experience of blindness.

And all this could be coming to you sooner than you think. The presence of streaming platforms as serious buyers at the festival breathes new life into the realm of post-festival possibilities for a Sundance film. It's no longer a Weinsteins-or-GTFO game. I didn't see The Overnight at the festival last year, but I saw it when it showed up on VOD, and it was hilarious, and I told at least 10 people about it. Ten years, even five years ago, that fate might not have been available for a film of that scale.

So despite its old-fashioned exclusivity and cumbersome logistics, the future can happen at Sundance, and it can happen on the ground. And what happens here isn't so destined to stay here.

What we're looking forward to the most at this year's Sundance Film Festival:

  1. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World: Werner Herzog explores what it means to be human on the internet. I can't think of a single reason not to be excited about this.
  2. Kiya: VR journalism pioneer Nonny de la Peña's short about a real-life domestic violence case will make its US debut at New Frontiers.
  3. Swiss Army Man: Music video auteurs the Daniels make their feature film debut with an oddball survivalist drama starring Daniel Radcliffe as a corpse.
  4. Nomads: VR stars Felix and Paul continue their groundbreaking series with two new installments: Nomads: Masai and Nomads: Sea Gypsies.
  5. The Lure: A Polish musical (!) drama set in the '80s about a pair of bloodthirsty siren sisters. I have a feeling this is going to be a much-needed dose of mid-festival weirdness.
  6. Morris From America: Coming-of-age tales are a Sundance mainstay, but Morris looks to be both specific and uniquely charming — and there's a considerable amount of buzz around its young star, Markees Christmas.
  7. Manchester by the Sea: Kenneth Lonergan! Making another movie! There's still hope in this world.
  8. Operation Avalanche: We have heard rumors that this moon landing conspiracy drama skews more toward the comedic-absurdist end of things — which frankly, makes us all the more excited.
  9. O.J.: Made in America: ESPN Films is screening all seven and a half hours of their miniseries about the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson — just in time for Ryan Murphy's dramatic take on the subject on FX next month.