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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is filmfestivals.com  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


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Sundance Film Festival 2021 : Context and Data

by Claus Mueller, filmexchange@gmail.com  New York

The Sundance 2021 festival is covered in  two parts. In this first part the new context for Sundance 2021 is discussed; its customized festival model, the audience Sundance reached this year, and a listing of productions purchased to date, as well as the sponsors supporting this year’s edition. In the second part, which will be posted next week, I will review several features and documentaries.

The radical film and television distribution changes resultant from the social ruptures accelerated by the ongoing global pandemic over the last year, and its seeming continuance, have resulted in the  shift of viewing patterns and rapid enlargement of existing streaming platforms, as well as the creation of many new ones. These shifts have reenforced trends which have been growing for years, long before Covid-19 created havoc in the US and other countries.  The way most people watch films and experience festivals inexorably changed as well. Some analysts and critics wedded to tradition have deplored the shift and alleged a decline of the cinematic  culture. But the audience, film festivals, the film and television industry, and the filmmakers themselves have adapted to the new reality. Those grieving about the end of going to the movies are often ignorant of the existing up to date research about the shift of audience viewing habits, of trends in domestic and foreign film markets, and of the constant distribution adjustment to new technologies. This also applies to prominent  directors like Martin Scorsese.  He  cannot accept the provision of film content in streaming deals based on data based algorithmic profiles of the audience which are apparently replacing  the traditional gatekeeper of cinematic culture. His 2019 feature The Irishman was produced by Tribeca and funded by Netflix at the tune of close to $200 million. In 2020 streaming, experienced a 40%  audience increase.  Netflix alone added close to three millions of new subscribers, a growth that has continued now though at a slowing down rate.

The 2021 Sundance film festival was held from January 28 to February 3 and demonstrated an effective hybrid festival adaptation to the rapidly changing film universe through national and international online streaming, in-person screenings in  Utah, independent art cinemas, and drive-ins in 24 locations throughout the US.  Sundance generated the largest audience it had ever experienced, despite fewer films shown overall and a festival shortened from ten to seven days. What the record of the 2021 edition shows is that the embrace of streaming technologies and the corresponding customization of festival programing and audience services enhanced the festival. This runs counter to some favorite preconceptions like the frequently invoked audience preference for seeing films in theatres and the social rewards of going to the movies. The 2021 Sundance experience of a large or expanding audience follows the record set last year by others  like the Tribeca/YouTube We Are One  free digital global film festival, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, DOC NYC,  and the Asian American Film Festival.  Their films were accessed by the audience through streaming platforms and few viewers expressed that they missed the film theater experience.  As Sundance shows again, streaming services have become the most important buyers, acquiring films  premiering in major film festivals.

These changes have enhanced the impact of Sundance and the role of independent film making, which has been central to its mission ever since  Robert Redford established the non-profit Sundance Institute in 1981. That mission being the bringing of innovative and groundbreaking productions to the domestic and international audience. Like the Berlinale’s Talent Campus and its related initiatives, Sundance actively fosters the development and presentation of new filmmakers through a wide range of training programs, financial support steps, and mentorships. Sundance also emphasizes the global audience it serves, international film making, diverse filmmakers, content, and the early identification of new digital filmmaking and distribution technologies.

During the first six days of the festival, 73 feature length and  50 short films were screened online, at 28 satellite screening locations, and in six drive-in theatres. This included close contact with the audience in Q&A session after each screening, using the same methods. Sundance was able to retain many characteristics of traditional juried film festivals. It offered  four  grand jury prizes, six audience awards, two short film awards, the next innovator prize, as well as four Sundance Institute awards, and the 2021  A.P. Sloan feature film prize. There were three Sundance film festival awards, seven special jury awards and three directing, screenwriting, and editing awards for the US and world documentaries, and one for a US dramatic film. Seven short film awards completed the 2021 Sundance list.

Of the 14,092 submissions for  Sundance this year, 141 were selected for the program covering 43 narrative features, 30 documentary ones, 50 short films and 14 new frontiers projects. Including the US, 45 countries were represented. The program carried 29 international narrative and documentary features, 27 international shorts, and introduced 39 first time feature filmmakers, of which 27 had their productions in the competition. 44 projects had support by the Sundance Institute and 16 projects were presented by Sundance alumni. 49% of the projects were from female  filmmakers and half by filmmakers of color.

In the 2020 edition, 116,800 individuals attended Sundance  and 215,873 tickets were sold. The 2021 format, with the online presentation of feature length films and shorts viewable nationwide through 28 satellite connected screens in about 20 cities run by partner cinemas and organizations drew an audience which was 2.7 times larger than 2020 festival audience. The  complete online program covered 73 features, 50 short films, 4 indie series, 23 talks and related events  as well as  the New Frontier program with its 14 projects. There were 251,331 views through online platforms. On the assumption that there are two individuals per viewing household this figure resulted in  total of 500,000 viewers. In addition, there were  33,267 views for the free talks and events program and 69,869 visits to the New Frontier exhibition, a remarkable increase from prior years. The seven  drive-in screens attracted 20,000 individuals. The total estimated audience for 2021 amounted to 600,000, viewers close to tripling the results of 2020. 

Data show that 48% of the participants were from the 18-34 age group, that the audience engagement with the festival covered 120 countries, and that close to two third of the viewers opted for watching films in the premiere window which included interactive and Q&A components.  85% of the tickets sold were single tickets at $15. The remainder were passes, $75 for a day pass and $350 for a festival pass covering all days and events. Discounted tickets were offered to 20% of the anticipated target audiences, including discounted passes to young adults through the festival’s Ignite program. Apart from retaining old sponsors, the festival attracted some new ones alongside enlarged press and industry participation. 1,272  journalists were accredited and 1,800 members from the industry. International press participation increased from 33 countries to 41 and industry representation rose from 26 last year to 41. Further, Sundance  grew the size of its press corps to 81 by providing grants to facilitate attendance. Overall, the festival has met its ambitious objective to broaden its reach. It has applied modern distribution technologies, developed, again, an outstanding program with innovative and creative filmmakers, enlarged its national and global audience,  received more press coverage, and  continued to broaden the market for independent productions.

 

Sundance 2021 Acquisitions

AnnaPurna Pictures: ON THE COUNT OF THREE, Jerrod Carmichael, U.S. dramatic comp.

A24:  PLEASURE, Ninja Thyberg, World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Netflix: PASSING, Rebecca Hall,  US dramatic competition 

Magnolia: CRYPTOZOO, Dash Shaw, Next  / A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX, Rodney Asch, Midnight

National Geographic PLAYING WITH SHARKS, Sally Aitken, World Doc. Comp.

Neon: AILEY, Jaila Wignot  US Doc. Competition  / FLEE , Poher Rasmussen  World Doc. Comp. /   Neon’s Super LTD: ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE, Theo Anthony,  U.S. Doc. Comp.

Sony:  JOCKEY,  Clint Bentley,  U.S. Dramatic Comp.

Apple: CODA, Sian Heder, U.S. Dramatic Comp.  biggest  festival purchase, $25 million

RJLE: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND, Sion Sono, Premieres

Juno Films: THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOY IN THE WORLD, Bjorn Andresen, World Doc. Comp.

Bleeker Street:  TOGETHER TOGETHER,  Nikole Beckwith, U.S, Dramatic Comp.

Shudder: VIOLATION, Madelein Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli, Midnight

 

Sundance 2021 Sponsors

Presenting:  Acura, Sundance TV, Chase Sapphire, Adobe

Leadership:  Amazon Studios, AT&T, DoorDash, Dropbox, Netflix, Omnicom Group, Southwest Airlines Warner Media

Sustaining: AMC Audible, Canada Goose,  Canon USA,  Dell Technologies,  Documentary Plus,  BEICO, MDbPro,  Stella Artois,  Unity Technologies,  University of Utah, White Claw Hard Seltzer,  Zoom,

Media:  The Atlantic, Indie Wire, Los Angeles Times, NPR, The New York Times,  Variety, Vulture, The Wall Street Journal.

And the State of Utah  as the Festival Host State

 

 

Claus Mueller, filmexchange@gmail.com  New York

 

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