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With the Sundance Festival finally back in person, filmmakers have high hopes for distribution deals

Stephanie Hughes Jan 20, 2023
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Filmmaker Ebs Burnough and Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente speak onstage at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

With the Sundance Festival finally back in person, filmmakers have high hopes for distribution deals

Stephanie Hughes Jan 20, 2023
Heard on:
Filmmaker Ebs Burnough and Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente speak onstage at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Vivien Killilea/Getty Images
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The Sundance Film Festival is up and running this week in Park City, Utah, for the first time in three years.

Sundance is both a place where the public can go to see new movies and a place where new movies can go to get seen by potential buyers.

Variety film critic Peter Debruge has a favorite spot to watch movies at Sundance: in the front row of the balcony. He said you can really feel the audience’s energy from there.

“It’s not that it necessarily changes my review,” Debruge said. “My reaction is my reaction. I think that’s true of people who are buying movies, too. But at the same time, you know, suddenly whether I love or hate a film, I know what the audience is going to think.”

Sundance was held virtually for the past two years, which means Debruge and potential film distributors have been watching world premieres in their PJs.

“You know, I think people really crave coming back to that theatrical experience and discovering new talent and having this experience that is so unique to Sundance,” said Joana Vicente, CEO of the Sundance Institute.

Vicente is quick to point out that some films still had success when they debuted online with the festival. The winner of the most recent Oscar for Best Picture, “CODA,” was picked up by Apple in 2021 for $25 million.

The majority of filmmakers with movies premiering at Sundance are actively seeking distributors for their work, including Laura Gabbert, whose new documentary is called “Food and Country.”

“We do want to sell the film,” Gabbert said. “So there are buyers at Sundance, and there’s something magical that happens at [a] Sundance premiere.”

Gabbert’s movie tells the story of independent farmers, fishermen, and restaurateurs through the lens of food critic Ruth Reichl. “My parents didn’t care about food but they loved restaurants,” Reichl says in a clip of the film.

In 2015, another of Gabbert’s movies called “City of Gold” debuted at Sundance and she received multiple offers. She thinks that would not have happened if she’d just sent distributors a link to the film.

“You know, it was a lot of buyers in the room and feeling the excitement and laughing along in the audience and feeling moved,” according to Gabbert.

She said it’s not just her film that’s at stake right now, but the independent film genre as a whole.

“It’s getting harder and harder to be an independent filmmaker, and it’s getting harder and harder to find the financing for truly independent films,” Gabbert said.

That means if they’re not getting shown in a theater at Sundance, they may not get shown in theaters anywhere.

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