Sundance: The Politics of Picking an Opening-Night Film
Opening night at the Sundance Film Festival, always on a Thursday, has recently been reserved for the premiere of an extra-arty film. One longtime attendee calls it the “gay Eskimo” slot: a picture that tries so hard to be original that it ends up being completely uncommercial.
The bigwig distribution executives tend to skip it and arrive on Friday.
This year, Sundance programmers decided to mix things up, opening the festival on Thursday with “Whiplash,” an intense drama about an aspiring drummer (Miles Teller) and his deeply abusive teacher (J.K. Simmons). Bloggers instantly summarized the movie as “‘Full Metal Jacket’ at Julliard.”
How did “Whiplash” get picked? In a window into the behind-the-scenes jockeying that goes into time-slot selections at the high-profile festival, John Cooper, Sundance’s director, publicly thanked the film’s producers and agents on Thursday night for the “bravery to take this slot.”
In other words, “Whiplash” had to agree to go first.
When a film is accepted by Sundance, the writer-director – in the case of “Whiplash,” a 28-year-old newcomer named Damien Chazelle – pops the champagne. And then agents and producers begin pushing Sundance programmers for the best schedule position. Going up against the premiere of another buzzy title? Dreaded. Opening night? Avoid at all costs.
The absence of distributors is only one concern. The usual goal is to spark an immediate bidding war, and the chances of that diminish when buyers have seen only one film. Opening-night films also tend to receive instant scrutiny from critics.
Sundance ultimately holds the power to do whatever it wants: too bad, you’re going first. But agents and producers have some leverage. Sundance wants stars to show up for post-screening Q&A sessions, and the star – not to say this happened with “Whiplash” but for instance — can suddenly be unavailable at a certain time.
Sundance also wants to maintain a good relationship with filmmakers and stars it thinks are promising, so it tries to cooperate with requests.In the case of “Whiplash,” financed for $3.3 million by Bold Films, nobody was exactly thrilled about Sundance’s opening-night request, according to multiple people involved with the film.
But Mr. Cooper’s argument was compelling: Mr. Chazelle’s film was arresting enough to withstand the pressure, and its theme of a musician getting repeatedly kicked in the face as he pursued his art was certainly applicable to every filmmaker’s experience in the festival, to one degree or another.
“We thought about it for a second and said that we would be thrilled,” said Jason Blum, a producer of “Whiplash” with David Lancaster, Helen Estabrook and Michael Litvak. Executive producers include Jason Reitman and Couper Samuelson.
But the “Whiplash” team still had work to do. According to another producer, the film’s handlers began working to ratchet up buzz for the film to ensure that the right distributors would be in the Thursday-night audience. Publicists worked with The Los Angeles Times on an advance feature article, for instance.
The result: All the major buyers were in attendance, including Lionsgate, Sony Pictures Classics and Open Road. Sony announced a deal on Friday morning for overseas distribution. Agents for the film were fielding domestic offers.
And the insta-reviews were glowing: “biting enough to have been written by Aaron Sorkin,” a Variety critic wrote of moments in Mr. Chazelle’s screenplay.
Courtesy of D. Mc faddenhttp://www.sundance.org/festival/