Sundance 2016 By the Numbers

Birth of a Nation

The flurry of snowflakes and press hype surrounding Park City, UT, may be soon slowing to a halt, but the reach and influence of the Sundance Film Festival will last long into the coming year. Here are a few interesting factoids from this year's festival, which runs through this Sunday, January 31.

How many films get distribution deals? In 2014, it was four out of five.

This 2015 infographic from Cultural Weekly shows you the many ways to slice and dice Sundance figures but the graph about distribution deals, counting figures through 2014, is the most telling: 95 Sundance films picked up deals in 2014, up sharply from the rare few—12, in fact—that did in 2010. What changed? The streaming revolution (see below), pushing the exponential upward tick of deals through the last several years. That fact has, no doubt, sharply increased overall submissions to the festival in the past few years, though the same infographic shows a leveling off through 2015.

Who is buying the most films this year? Netflix and Amazon.

Netflix bid a staggering $20 million for Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation (top), the story of preacher Nat Turner and the most successful yet bloody slave rebellion in American history. In the end, the filmmakers left that deal on the table, opting instead for the slightly less lucrative offer of $17.5 million from Fox Searchlight. With the #OscarsSoWhite crisis forcing the industry to examine how more filmmakers and actors of color can compete earlier and more often for Academy Awards, a theatrical release makes sense on many levels. The film got a resounding and prolonged standing ovation at its Sundance premiere January 25, sparking an immediate bidding war. "My responsibility to the project is to make sure to find a partner that is as passionate as we are about it socially, so if that meant we had to take less money, then those were conversations I was willing to have," Parker told The Hollywood Reporter, which also cited sources who said Parker and the producers wanted "a large theatrical experience …. so people would be rallied to action," just as they had been inside the festival's Eccles Theatre. 

But in most other deals, Netflix and Amazon continued to outbid the traditional studios.

Swiss Army Man

How many films were cut with Adobe Premiere Pro? Just under half.

Adobe revealed recently that 51 of the 120+ films, not including shorts, selected for this year's festival were cut with Adobe Premiere Pro CC, double the number touched by the editing software last year. Those include the documentary Richard Linklater – Dream Is Destiny, directed by journalist Louis Black, the Man on the Moon/CIA thriller Operation Avalanche, and Swiss Army Man (above), which features Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse (above).

Southside with You

Number of films that could influence how people vote in 2016? Six.

Don't quote me on that number, since one could argue that all documentaries are sociopolitical change agents at the most fundamental level, but a few of this year's films stand out for how they will likely impact the current political climate. And documentaries aren't the only influencers. In addition to Birth of a Nation, another work of timely historical fiction at this year's festival is Southside With You, (dir. by Richard Tanne), an account of the "epic first date" between Barack and the future Mrs. Obama in the summer of 1989. The docs that will likely influence votes include those on gun control (Newtown, directed by Kim A. Snyder), the sexting scandal of Anthony Weiner, husband of Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin (Weiner, dir. and shot by Josh Kriegman), Gasland director Josh Fox's How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change and the abortion rights film Trapped, directed and co-written by Dawn Porter.

Wiener-Dog

Number of Grand Jury Prize-winning debut directors returning, at long last, this year? Two.

Kenneth Lonergan won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2000 for You Can Count on Me, which he wrote and directed, and he's back this year with Manchester by the Sea, a working-class drama featuring brooding performances from Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler and Michelle Williams (see below). Netflix just picked it up for $10 million. Joining him is Todd Solondz, whose Wiener-Dog (above) is also a kind of return to weird and wonderful Dawn Wiener country and Solondz's first Sundance premiere since his 1996 festival-winning debut, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Greta Gerwig stars as a grown-up Dawn. Zosia Mamet, Danny DeVito and a lovable dachshund are along for the ride. Cinematographer Ed Lachman captures the eccentric characters, as well as the scatological adventures of the canine star, in loving detail.

Love and Friendship

Number of period dramas? Five.

Whit Stillman has returned to Sundance with an adaptation of Jane Austen's unpublished novella, Lady Susan. Love & Friendship (above) is a 1790s English comedy of manners starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, and it joins Birth of a Nation and Southside with You, in the tales-from-another-time category. John Carney, director of the Sundance Audience Award-winning breakthrough hit Once, returns this year with Sing Street, another youthful musical story set, this time, in 1980s Dublin. Sophie and the Rising Sun, a mixed-race American love story further complicated by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, comes from Sundance alum Maggie Greenwald.

Antibirth

Extra Credit: Number of films starring Michelle Williams? Two.

Number starring Natasha Lyonne? Three.

Michelle Williams appears in both Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Seabut Orange Is the New Black's Natasha Lyonne tops her with three films at Sundance this year. She can be seen in The Intervention, actress Clea DuVall's directorial debut; in Kevin Smith's Yoga Hosers alongside Johhny Depp and his daughter Lily-Rose; and in Antibirth.

Roger Deakins Says Shooting Film Is “Over”

Scarlett Johansson and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!

Kodak won't be sending Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE, any valentines this year — not following comments he made to Variety reporter Kristopher Tapley about his aversion to shooting 35mm film.

"It's fine," he responded when asked about his anxiety level when shooting film for Joel and Ethan Coen's new Hail, Caesar! (pictured, top of page), but then elaborated:

We did have some problems. We had some stock issues and stuff like that, which was really disconcerting. And I’ve heard that’s happened to a lot of people lately, you know — stock and lab problems. That’s unnerving. I mean, I never really remember having those kind of problems before. But it makes me nervous now. I don’t want to do that again, frankly. I don’t think the infrastructure’s there.

Deakins did say that when working with the Coens he'd be willing to shoot one of their movies on anything from film to a cell phone — which is the bottom line for any cinematographer hoping to collaborate with a favored director. But he made his point again: "As I say, just the technical problems with film, I'm sorry, it's over."

The negative remarks come after Hollywood's concerted effort to keep Kodak's film production lines running, with supply agreements brokered with six studios at the urging of directors including Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. And film still has artistic credibility — DP Robert Richardson, ASC, earned an Oscar nomination for shooting Tarantino's The Hateful Eight in 65mm anamorphic, as did Edward Lachman, ASC, for shooting director Todd Haynes' Carol on Super 16.

Moreover, there is renewed interest in exhibiting film, with rumblings that Warner Bros. may be considering a 70mm release of the shot-on-film Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice. And given their past preferences, it seems likely that film-friendly directors Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson must already be in the planning stages of yet-to-be-announced but high-profile film projects. Let's see what happens in 2016 to keep all those once-abandoned film projectors brought back into service for The Hateful Eight from gathering dust.

Five Things the TV Industry Needs to Know About VR

VR is potentially a killer app for the TV industry — but it's way too early to say for sure what real opportunities it presents. That was the gist of presentations at a webinar presented this week by StudioDaily sister publication Cablefax, where panelists discussed the emerging VR market and what it means for television as we know it. A lot of ground was covered during the 90-minute session, which is available for viewing on demand, but we've distilled five of the most relevant nuggets of wisdom for you here.

cablefax_vr

1) Not everyone can (or should) be a pioneer. According to Joel Espelien, a senior analyst at The Diffusion Group, the presumed young male target demographic for VR means that a good proportion of the successful early-adopter applications will be first-person shooters and, yes, porn. "Adult may be more prominent than people would want, or be comfortable with," Espelien said. "If I'm Disney or Pixar, I'm not necessarily racing to be right next to that stuff, but if I'm Vice or Red Bull, being early in VR can make sense."

2) Early VR distribution will take cues from videogames. Julian Reyes, lead VR producer for Fusion, an ABC-Disney joint venture, talked about creating 360-degree video content using the Unreal Engine. An upcoming project, Mars 2030, is being created in partnership with NASA to look at current progress on an upcoming mission to Mars. Fusion hired game developers from other AAA titles to help work on the project. "Since Fusion is a channel that's geared to millennials, and a lot of us are gamers ourselves, we definitely liked the idea of incorporating videogame mechanics into our storytelling," Reyes said. Fusion is also leveraging existing videogame distribution channels. "We are approaching the videogame market by putting these titles on the Steam marketplace," Reyes explained. "The Mars experience will be available for the Oculus Rift, but we are porting it to create a slimmed-down version for the Samsung Gear VR and, in the near future, porting it to the PlayStation VR."

3) Live sports may become lucrative. Looking at opportunities for a multichannel provider that could provide authentication for broadband delivery of VR, Time Warner Cable Executive VP and Chief Video Officer Melinda Witmer suggested live sports may be a killer app for the mainstream VR market. She credited a conversation with Golden State Warriors co-owner (and Mandalay Entertainment CEO) Peter Guber with opening her eyes to the excitement surrounding sports VR applications. Still, it will require a lot negotiation. "Electronic sports rights are pretty heavily wrapped up with the major television networks," she acknowledged. "Somewhere between working with the leagues and the teams — as well as their rightsholders, like the ESPNs and Foxes of the world — I wouldn't expect to see that content winding up too far from an authenticated experience in the future, so I think [multichannel] operators could be helpful in making that work."

4) VR shoots are easy; VR post is hard. Cory Key, interactive creative director for Discovery Communications, says Discovery VR's production needs have been met so far by nothing but 360Heros VR rigs and GoPro cameras. "The bottleneck is post-production," he said, especially the need to have the multiple GoPro images manually stitched after the shoot. "There are no previews on GoPro, so you're putting it down and crossing your fingers that you're getting a good shot." The Nikon KeyMission 360, a 4K UHD consumer actioncam with two lenses and sensors facing forward and backward that debuted at CES, may be a game-changer when it's released later this year, Key said, since it stitches the captured images together in camera to create a 360-degree image.

5) VR still needs to overcome the 3D stigma. Witmer said content companies who made an outlay to be a pioneer in 3D are looking askance at claims that VR will be the next big entertainment format. "What probably doesn't help right now is that one of the things that happened with 3D was different formats, different kinds of glasses, some of which were really expensive, the experience depended on the equipment you had as well as the content — from how it was created down to the lighting in your room where you were watching. And 3D turned out to be a dud for the industry. So there is some healthy skepticism out there about whether or not investing in VR is going to pay off."

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Five Hot Takes on the 2016 Oscars

creed

1) #oscarssowhite

Last year at this time, The Atlantic ran a headline complaining, "The Oscars haven't been this white in 19 years," noting that 2015 was the first time in since 1996 that all 20 acting nominees were white. Well, the Academy made it a double feature, going a second straight year without nominating people of color in the acting categories and giving a second wind to Twitter's #oscarssowhite tag. Making matters worse, while two films about mostly black characters — Creed and Straight Outta Compton — got nominations, those nods went to only white people associated with them (Creed supporting player Sylvester Stallone and Straight Outta Compton's screenwriters), not the black actors who starred in them or the black directors who made them. Though AMPAS is known as a fairly homogenous group — in 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that Oscar voters are 94 percent caucasian — it's not entirely fair to blame the Academy for this. If Hollywood were a more welcoming environment for people of color in the first place, there would be more opportunities for the Oscars to recognize their work. Either way, even the Academy knows it's in a bad spot when it comes to diversity. Said AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs when asked about the issue by Deadline, "We have got to speed it up."

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol

2) Year of the Women

Diversity advocates might take some solace in the fact that women took a dominant role in this year's Oscar race. Competition in the lead actress category is so fierce that Rooney Mara, who clearly gives one of two lead performances in Carol (and was recognized as a lead by the Golden Globes), was busted down to supporting in campaigning by The Weinstein Company, which was desperate not to split the Carol vote between her and Cate Blanchett. What's more, many of the nominated films are stories specifically about complicated and realistic female characters, which can be in short supply at Oscar time — Carol, Room, Joy, 45 Years, Brooklyn. Make no mistake, Carol partisans feel that the lesbian-themed film was robbed of nods for Best Picture and Best Director. (As eminent blogger Nathaniel R points out, it's highly unusual for a film to earn six nominations and still be shut out of Best Picture.) Still, representation across both genders is pretty strong this year, and that's refreshing to see.

Mad Max: Fury Road

3) The Year of George Miller and Mad Max

It didn't win any acting nominations, but Mad Max: Fury Road is another woman-oriented story (some called it feminist; others argued it was simply humanist). Along with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it bucked Hollywood's longstanding trend of male-dominated action movies. Action movies and sequels rarely generate much Oscar interest (The Return of the King is a big exception in recent history), but director George Miller's apocalyptic epic was so awesome in so many ways that it galvanized the Academy across multiple categories, from directing and cinematography to costume design and VFX. It's also one of the best reviewed movies of the year, per Rotten Tomatoes. Miller's take? "Who would have thunk it, eh?"

Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight

4) The Cinematography Spread

Remember when it was a novelty to see a digitally shot feature film (Slumdog Millionairewin the cinematography Oscar? 2009 sure seems like a long time ago, now that the industry has shifted to predominantly digital capture. But this year saw film roaring back as part of a grab bag of acquisition formats. Ed Lachman shot Carol on Super 8. Robert Richardson shot The Hateful Eight on 65mm anamorphic. Emmanuel Lubezki shot The Revenant with the large-format Alexa 65. Just about the only format not well-represented among the nominees was 35mm — who would have thought the once-standard format would take a backseat to 16mm and 65mm in a shot-on-film revival?

Alicia Vikander and VFX in Ex Machina

5) Ex Machina: The Little Movie That Could

How on earth did Ex Machina, a $15 million indie film, end up in the final five nominees for the VFX Oscar? Well, you have to look first to the quality of work itself, and Ex Machina's fembot, performed by Alica Vikander with a significant CG assist, is certainly a convincing character. You have to look also at the significance of the VFX work in context of story and character, and it's clear that Ex Machina's VFX work contributed to a queasily surreal atmosphere that underscored its themes of (SPOILERS!?) artifical intelligence, fetishism and sexism, and finally liberation. VFX is most often employed as a vehicle for escapism, which is great. Ex Machina proved that it can also be used in seriously philosophical, morally fraught ways. It's unlikely to win — not in a field where it competes with a Star Wars movie — but you know what they say: it's an honor just to be nominated.

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Last-Minute Oscar Predictions

In advance of tomorrow morning's Oscar nominations, I thought it would be fun to take a stab at predicting the outcome of a few key races, from Best Picture and Director through Cinematography and Editing all the way to Sound and VFX. Here goes — I'll make sure to revisit this tomorrow to see how I did and what I got wrong. Updated 1/14/16: Strikethroughs are guesses I got wrong; nominations I missed have been added and annotated in red.

Best Picture

This category has come into focus in the last weeks of the race, although it's still a slippery one since the final list can include anywhere from five to 10 films, depending on how voting shakes out. I'm taking the easy way out and listing 10 films, which means a few of my selections are wild cards. I'm thinking Brooklyn may squeeze in thanks largely to a widely admired performance by Saoirse Ronan; ditto for Room, which should benefit from the many plaudits for Brie Larson. Star Wars: The Force Awakens might seem like one crowd-pleasing blockbuster too many in an Oscar field that already includes Mad Max and The Martian, but I think Oscar voters will find it hard to ignore the film's box-office returns — not to mention the strong feelings of nostalgia it inspires. Carol is a beautifully made film anchored by two strong female performances, but is it flying under the Academy's radar? You could ask the same question about Bridge of Spies, which came and went without much fanfare — but it's a film full of solid craft from top to bottom, including a noteworthy supporting performance by Mark Rylance, and the Academy recognizes solid craft, and loves Spielberg. I'm thinking Sicario could find its way into the mix, too. It will be interesting to see what happens here.

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I did OK here if you ignore the fact that I selected 10 titles instead of 8, with Carol and Star Wars missing the cut-off.

Best Director

My list is basically the DGA's list of nominees, except that I've awapped out Adam McKay (The Big Short) for Carol director Todd Haynes. If Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara get nominations for their performances (and I think they will) I'm betting Haynes sneaks in here. Don't think there's room for the directors of Brooklyn or Room in this category no matter how you slice it.

Adam McKay, The Big Short
Todd Haynes, Carol
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Alejandro Inarritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

No one expected Ridley Scott to miss here, but Room fared well with the Academy.

Best Cinematography

I'm borrowing this list from the ASC, with one substitution. I think Robert Richardson slides in here for his work helping resurrect the Ultra Panavision film format on The Hateful Eight. In my formulation, that means he pushes out Janusz Kaminski, who already has two wins out of six Oscar nominations. That's only possible because Bridge of Spies is relatively low-profile Spielberg. If that film surges tomorrow morning, maybe Richardson pushes out Carol instead, trading Ed Lachman's Super 16 cinematography for Richardson's 65mm work — a shame, since they're both such beautiful films.

Ed Lachman, Carol
Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight
John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road
Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
Roger Deakins, Sicario

Nailed it.

Best Editing

For the editing Oscar, the Academy tends to favor movies with lots of visible editing. That means Hank Corwin's aggressive editorial work on The Big Short is a shoe-in. The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road will both get lots of nominations tomorrow, and there's no reason to think they won't score in this category along with Pietro Scalia, a terrific editor and a two-time Oscar-winner already, for The Martian. Finally, I'm thinking Joe Walker's work cutting some very tense action in Sicario will get him some attention here. If he's not nominated, I'd expect this might be a category where Star Wars: The Force Awakens gets some love.

Hank Corwin, The Big Short
Margaret Sixel, Mad Max: Fury Road
Pietro Scalia, The Martian
Stephen Mirrione, The Revenant
Joe Walker, Sicario
Tom McArdle, Spotlight
Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In hindsight, it seems obvious that Star Wars would make it in here.

Best Sound Editing

Speaking of The Force Awakens, it's never a good idea to bet against Star Wars in a sound category. The series has been winning sound Oscars since 1978. (Only Episodes II and III missed that mark.) I'm going out on a limb and putting Spectre in this category, too, since the Bond movies are so well known for their audio, but this spot could just as easily go to Wylie Stateman for The Hateful Eight, Richard Hymns for Bridge of Spies, or even Glenn Freemantle for Everest.  

Scott Hecker, Mark Mangini and David White, Mad Max: Fury Road
Oliver Tarney, The Martian
Martin Hernandez and Lon Bender, The Revenant
Karen Baker Landers, Per Hallberg, Spectre
Alan Robert Murray, Sicario
David Accord and Matthew Wood, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Makes sense.

Best Sound Mixing

This category looks much the same as the one above it, except I've squeezed in the team from Straight Outta Compton, which juggles a lot of different types of soundscapes, from street scenes to studio sessions to live performances, to great effect. Special shout-out to Stuart Wilson who, in my formulation, is in competition with himself!

Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Drew Kunin, Bridge of Spies
Ben Osmo, Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudlogg, Mad Max: Fury Road
Paul Massey, Mark Taylor and Mac Ruth, The Martian
Chris Duesterdiek, Frank A. Montano, Jon Taylor, Randy Thom, The Revenant
Stuart Wilson, Scott Millan, Gregg Rudloff, Spectre
Stuart Wilson, Andy Nelson, Chris Scarabosio, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Willie Burton, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, Straight Outta Compton

No surprise, really. All solid choices.

Best VFX

An easier one, given that the Academy has already culled the field to 10 films that were invited to last weekend's Oscar bake-off. I figure Star Wars, Jurassic World, and Mad Max are sure bets, The Walk overcomes widespread audience indifference thanks to the scope of the digital environment work required to recreate the Twin Towers, and The Revenant gets in on the strength of a single scene featuring featuring the meanest bear in the movies.

Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington and Sara Bennett, Ex Machina
Tim Alexander, Glen McIntosh, Tony Plett, Michael Meinardus, Jurassic World
Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams, Mad Max: Fury Road
Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence and Steven Warner, The Martian
Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith and Cameron Waldbauer, The Revenant
Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, Chris Corbould, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Kevin Baillie, Jim Gibbs, Viktor Muller, and Sebastien Moreau, The Walk

Ex Machina is the little movie that could, squeaking in to this category of very big movies on a reported $15 million budget. It's a bad day to be The Walk, and congratulations to everyone in this category for going up against the dinos and coming out on top.

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