Before COVID upended the film festival scene, Sundance premieres were a hotbed of drama as studio chiefs and streaming executives staked out the best seats in the theater and then beat a path for the exits as soon as the credits rolled in the hopes of outmaneuvering each other for the hottest films. After two years of going virtual, Sundance is back in-person. However, it’s unclear if the all-night bidding wars that were such a staple of past festivals will also return in force. At a time of cost-cutting and box office struggles for indie movies, a new era of fiscal restraint may be the order of the day.
But Sundance’s thin mountain air could cause all that economizing to evaporate. And if it does, here are 13 films that could have buyers writing big checks.
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Alia Shawkat
Director: Anthony Chen
Sales Agent: UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Erivo is said to be nothing short of spectacular as Jacqueline, a refugee who flees war-torn Liberia for the safety of a Greek island. Through her friendship with a tour-guide (Shawkat), she begins to find a way to move past the violence and trauma she has endured to forge a new life for herself. Tears will be shed.
Cast: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun and Geraldine Viswanathan
Director: Susanna Fogel
Sales Agent: Studiocanal/ UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Embrace the controversy. The buzzy stars of “Succession” and “CODA” team up for a trenchant dissection of “first date” social pressures. Based on a New Yorker story that went viral with its thought-provoking depiction of gender and sex, “Cat Person” seems destined to be the mostly fiercely debated movie at Sundance.
Cast: Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Taylour Paige
Director: Elijah Bynum
Sales Agent: CAA
Why Buyers Are Circling: The showy central performance. Majors gives a transformative turn as a volatile young man with dreams of bodybuilding superstardom. In a year in which the actor is set to appear in sequels to “Creed” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” this is the film that could earn Majors an invite to the Oscars.
Cast: Sanaa Lathan, Algee Smith, Sierra Capri and Mike Epps
Director: Thembi Banks
Sales Agent: UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Pegged as one to watch, “Young.Wild.Free” is said to mark a stylish feature debut for Banks. The movie has been described as a modern take on “Bonnie & Clyde,” one that follows an aspiring artist who finds himself smitten with a local bad girl.
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Thomasin McKenzie, Jefferson White, Marin Ireland
Director: William Oldroyd
Sales Agent: WME
Why Buyers Are Circling: Otessa Moshfegh’s pitch black coming-of-age novel wowed critics with its narrative twists and unstinting look at abuse and neglect. It’s potent stuff, and a film that has attracted a top-shelf duo in McKenzie and Hathaway as two women whose lives collide in a dangerous way. To spoil anything more would be a crime.
Cast: Brian Imanuel, Yayu A.W. Unru, Kate Lyn Sheil, Henry Ian Cusick, Anthony Kiedis
Director: Justin Chon
Sales Agent: UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Imanuel, an acclaimed Indonesian rapper, is said to deliver a star-making performance as an up-and-coming musician whose relationship with his father turned manager is put to the test. It’s a story of family ties and ambition spun by Chon, who has proven himself to be a master of these kind of tangled relationship dramas in films such as “Blue Bayou” and “Ms. Purple.”
Cast: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola and Ally Maki
Director: Randall Park
Sales Agent: WME/UTA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Park’s directorial debut is the kind of charmer that feels destined to be a Sundance hit. The coming-of-age story follows a Bay Area cinephile named Ben, who manages a movie theater, though he’d rather be checking off titles on his Criterion Collection watch-list or hanging with his best friend Alice at a local deli. When his girlfriend Miko moves to New York for an internship, he’s left to figure out what he really wants out of life. Warning: it may leave you craving pastrami on rye.
A Still Small Voice
Director: Luke Lorentzen
Sales Agent: Submarine / CAA
Why Buyers Are Circling: It’s hard to not feel emotional when thinking about the strain on healthcare workers in the early pandemic days. The religious documentary centers on an aspiring hospital chaplain, who begins a yearlong residency in spiritual care at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital in 2020 and 2021, one of the deadliest periods in U.S. history. Through the process, she discovers the best way to offer emotional support to patients is to look deep within herself. Don’t forget the tissues.
Sometimes I Think About Dying
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Dave Merheje, Brittany O’Grady, Megan Stalter
Director: Rachel Lambert
Sales Agent: CAA
Why Buyers Are Circling: Fran (Ridley) is a woman who, as the title implies, likes to think about dying. Her morbid habit is challenged when she meets Robert, a new co-worker who’s seemingly destined to make a new friend out of Fran. After years of pandemic-related isolating and working from home, it’s a meet-cute story that almost feels nostalgic.
Aum: The Cult at the End of the World
Director: Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto
Sales Agent: Submarine/ Fifth Season
Why Buyers Are Circling: Does the title alone not have you hooked? The gripping documentary about the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo takes an unrelenting look the warning signs and ghastly behavior that ultimately led to its designation as a terrorist organization. At the center is Shoko Asahara, who started a seemingly innocuous yoga school in Japan. Not even 10 years later, the group — whose name means Supreme Truth — masterminded war crimes, including the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos
Director: Ira Sachs
Sales Agent: SBS / WME
Why Buyers Are Circling: Sachs is no stranger to delighting audiences at Sundance; “Passages” is the director’s eighth film to debut at the festival. Described as a story about the “messiness of life,” Rogowski and Whishaw play a same-sex couple whose longtime partnership is rattled when one has an affair with a woman. So, the other begins an extramarital fling of his own, successfully gaining back his husband’s attention while unearthing a little jealousy. Will they reconcile, or has their marriage run its course?
Director: Madeleine Gavin
Sales Agent: Submarine
Why Buyers Are Circling: It may be the most politically-potent documentaries in a festival filled with politically charged non-fiction films. “Beyond Utopia” follows various families as they risk everything while attempting to flee North Korea in the hopes of finding a better life away from the brutal regime. The footage of their treacherous journey is what will have people talking, but Gavin’s candid interviews with the courageous asylum seekers is what lingers long after the lights come up.
Flora and Son
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eve Hewson, Jack Reynor, Orén Kinlan
Director: John Carney
Sales Agent: Fifth Season/WME/FilmNation
Why Buyers Are Circling: Carney is a master of mixing memorable music and emotional uplift in films such as “Begin Again” and “Once.” His latest effort is the story of a single mom (Hewson) who finds a way to reconnect with her distant son (Kiln) by working together on some bangers. It’s a journey that also finds her forming a bond with a hunky guitar tutor (Gordon-Levitt) over a series of Zoom lessons. This has the kind of star power and relatable storyline that could help the film break out at a time when indie films are getting a cold shoulder from moviegoers.