Sundance 2016 – Highlights From An #Awesome Fest


Published on LinkedIn on February 5, 2016

The 2016 Sundance Film Festival is a remarkable event, not only for the incredible films, but for so many other reasons!  Because I live in Park City, and serve on the board of The Sundance Institute, I get to experience it to the fullest, and every year my friends and family ask me what were the highlights? It is my pleasure to share my TOP 10 for 2016.

(Photo: Nate Parker, Cast and Crew at the premier of The Birth of a Nation)

1) Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation makes Sundance history. Nate Parker spent 7 years and $100,000 of his own money to bring the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion to the big screen, and the film was well worth the wait. It was an honor to be in the audience for the premiere of this searingly powerful film and to witness the multiple standing ovations it so rightfully earned. Soon after, news broke that The Birth of a Nation had sold to Fox Searchlight for a record breaking $17.5 million, solidifying Writer/Director/Producer/Lead Actor Parker’s status as the next big thing in Hollywood. The Oscar buzz has already begun for this film, so be sure to check it out when The Birth of a Nation hits theaters later this year.

(Photo: Jacki and Greg with The Eagle Huntress star Aisholpan and her parents)

2) The Eagle Huntress enchants audiences. As a small investor in The Eagle Huntress through Impact Partners,  I was looking forward to its premiere at this year’s festival, but nothing prepared me for the feeling in the theater during that first showing. Telling the story of the world’s first female eagle hunter, this film was exhilarating, heartwarming, and incredibly inspiring. The 13 year old star of the film, Aisholpan, and her family were in attendance, and hearing both Aisholpan and her father talk about how they went against 2,000 years of male tradition to allow a young girl to follow her dream was one of those moments where you think your heart might burst. Sony Pictures Classics just picked up the rights to The Eagle Huntress, so keep an eye out for when this incredible film hits a theater near you.

(Photo: Jacki and Effie Brown)

3) Effie Brown brings down the house at the annual Women at Sundance Brunch. After going viral last year when a clip from Project Greenlight hit the web showing Brown going up against the entrenched white male privilege in Hollywood, Brown suddenly found herself the de facto spokesperson for diversity in the film industry. This incredibly important issue couldn’t have found a better voice, because Brown is articulate, intelligent, and most importantly, passionate, and all three of those qualities were on full display when she took the podium during the annual Women at Sundance brunch. Brown urged content creators and those who make hiring decisions to hire, mentor, and invest in women and people of color, and to be mindful of their own blind spots and unconscious bias when it comes to diversity. I was a fan of Brown’s before the event, but after hearing her speak, I think she may just be one of my new favorite people. Read more here and here.

4) Deadbeat dads are a thing of the past. The character trope of the deadbeat dad is one that has been well worn over the years, but this year’s festival offered a refreshing change from this status quo. From the heartwarming and touching father-son relationship at the heart of award winner Morris from America, to the incredibly powerful performance of Viggo Mortensen as a father fighting to raise his children on his own terms in Captain Fantastic, this year’s line up featured several portrayals of fathers that revelled in the complications, joy, and frustration inherent in the struggle to be a good father. Watch for both coming to your local theaters.

5) Audrie & Daisy adds to an important conversation. At last year’s festival, The Hunting Ground premiered to rave reviews, and helped spur debate and discussion about sexual assault on US college campuses. This year, Audrie & Daisy looked at the issue at the high school level, and examined how social media plays a pivotal role in the continued victimization of the survivors of sexual assault. As a mother of a teenage girl, this movie hit very close to home, and I’m proud to be an investor in a film that is helping to raise awareness of this very important issue and is giving a voice to the victims of these horrific crimes.

(Photo: Jacki Zehner, J.D. Dillard and Jessica)

6) Sleight proves that superheroes don’t need $100 million budgets. One of my favorite films of the festival was J.D. Dillard’s Sleight, a science-fiction thriller about a street magician who turns to drug dealing to support his sister after their mother dies. Shot in just 17 days on a budget of under a million dollars, Sleight is miles away from the big budgeted blockbusters of Marvel or DC, but make no mistake, this is still a superhero film. Bo, the film’s lead character played by Jacob Latimore, may not be from another planet or wear a cape, but he is courageous and brave, and certainly worthy of inclusion alongside cinema’s more widely known superheroes. I had the chance to talk with Dillard at the end of fest awards show, and I can’t wait to see what this talented filmmaker comes out with next.

(Photo: James Purefoy, Alysia Reiner, Sarah Megan Thomas at the premier of Equity)

7) Equity puts women back on Wall Street. I’ve already written about Equity’s premiere as the first film in 30 years about Wall Street with women in the lead roles.  Seeing the nearly all female cast, crew, and investors stand up for the Q&A after the premiere screening was definitely one of my festival highlights.

8) Episodic programs stake their claim. For years, the lines between film and television have been blurred to the point of being non-existent. Actors, writers, and creators now move freely between the two mediums, and therefore it’s no coincidence that film festivals are beginning to embrace episodic programming at ever increasing rates. This year’s Sundance was no exception, screening episodes of upcoming shows such as Chelsea Does, 11.23.63, The Girlfriend Experience, and OJ: Made in America, and in a long overdue recognition of web series, six episodes of Refinery29’s The Skinny. According to pop culture critics, we are currently in the midst of a golden age of television, with many shows’ production values rivalling those of the biggest blockbusters Hollywood has to offer, and television’s showing at Sundance this year only served to reinforce that television can hold its own against film any day.

(Photo: Jacki trying a Virtual Reality experience)

9) Virtual Reality brings the future to us. Sundance’s New Frontiers has been bringing festival attendees the latest in virtual reality for several years now, but at this year’s festival, the use of VR was more widespread than ever. For the 2016 festival, Sundance culled its VR entries from hundreds of submissions, and the subject matters of these films couldn’t have been more different. This year was the first year that I had so many VR experiences, and I was immediately struck by its potential to create empathy. Documentary film has long been a tool for social change, now comes VR.  Films such as Across the Line, 6X9, and Collisions all used VR technology to place the viewer directly into an immersive environment that told the story of important social issues, including abortion access, solitary confinement, and land rights. Social change will never happen unless people can truly empathize with those facing injustice, and the potential for VR to make that happen is mind-blowing.

10) Sonita wins big and amplifies women’s voices. The story of Sonita Alidazeh is one that simply has to be heard. A female rapper in Iran, Sonita speaks out against the injustice and sexism that surrounds her, but when her conservative mother insists that it’s time for Sonita to be married, tradition and ambition collide in powerful and moving ways. She became somewhat of a youtube sensation when she released this song about child marriage.  Sonita was one of the best films at the festival, and I’m not the only one who felt this way. The film won both the grand jury prize and audience award for World Documentary, however, as of writing, it does not have a distribution deal in place just yet. With the reception it’s received at Sundance, it’s only a matter of time before this incredible story will find its way to audiences.

Bonus highlight: This year’s festival was the first time that online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon really flexed their purchasing muscles and showed off their buying power. Together they bought a dozen titles, including some before the festival had even begun, and helped to spur the bidding war that resulted in The Birth of a  Nation’s recording breaking sale. Netflix even had a presence as a content creator with the screening of Chelsea Does. This represents a seismic shift from the usual Sundance market, and sent the message loud and clear that on the market, online streaming is just as valuable as theatrical rights. Not only is this a huge change in the way Sundance does business, but its ramifications in Hollywood are huge and only just beginning to be felt.

If you have not yet come to the Sundance Film Festival, I hope you will add it to your bucket list. If you did go this year, please send your favorite Sundance moment.

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