By LINDSEY BAHR, AP Film Writer
The Sundance Film Festival has always been a place for boundary-pushing programming, but from the Me Too movement, to diversity and representation in film and even the current presidency, this year the snowy mountain town of Park City, Utah, is primed to be an epicenter of conversation around some of the most burning issues of the day.
Among the over 110 films set to play at the festival, which kicks off Thursday night, are timely documentaries about trailblazing women like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“RBG”), Netflix’s “Seeing Allred,” about attorney Gloria Allred who represented women in sexual misconduct cases against Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, and Hollywood actress and activist Jane Fonda (“Jane Fonda in Five Acts”).
The festival has a number of buzzy narrative features spotlighting African-Americans, too, like the racially-charged police killing drama “Monsters and Men,” a wrongful conviction tale, “Monster,” ”Tyrel,” about a man who panics when he realizes he’s the only person of color going on a weekend trip, the dystopian “Sorry to Bother You,” and the opening night film “Blindspotting,” a dark comedy with “Hamilton’s” Daveed Diggs.
“One thing that has come into play, especially this year, is an awareness for a need for alternative voices and points of view to really tell better stories about America and the world,” said festival Director John Cooper.
Also, far surpassing the dismal numbers of the industry at large, 37 percent of the films at Sundance are directed by women (up three percent from last year), including features from Debra Granik (“Leave No Trace”), Tamara Jenkins (“Private Life”), Reed Morano (“I Think We’re Alone Now”) and Josephine Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”). Christina Choe directs a thriller, “Nancy,” about a woman convinced she was kidnapped as a child. And “Ophelia,” with Daisy Ridley, is a reimagining of “Hamlet” from her perspective. There’s even a documentary, “Half the Picture,” from director Amy Adrion, about the systematic discrimination of female filmmakers in Hollywood, with accounts from Catherine Hardwicke, Penelope Spheeris and Ava DuVernay.
One sure-to-be button-pushing documentary, “Our New President,” also playing opening night, looks at Trump’s ascension through Russian propaganda and “fake news” footage.
“Sundance has always focused on the most relevant political and social questions of the day,” said Franklin Leonard, found of the Black List, a survey of the industry’s best unproduced screenplays. “I don’t expect this year to be any different.”
And that’s just inside the theaters. On the streets, Allred, Fonda and Common are some of the celebrities set to lead a Respect Rally Saturday, one year after some 8,000 women and men turned out for the March on Main that followed Trump’s inauguration. Among the many panels and events taking place across the 10 days, Ginsburg will be interviewed by NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, and DuVernay will share the stage with Issa Rae and producer Christine Vachon to discuss the power of storytellers to change society.
For the first time in some 30 years, too, fallen mogul Harvey Weinstein will be absent from the festival he dominated for years and helped raise the profile of with big acquisitions for Miramax and The Weinstein Co. In recent months, Weinstein has been accused of two instances of assault at Sundance, including actress Rose McGowan’s rape allegation from 1997. Representatives for Weinstein have denied all allegations of non-consensual sex.
In response, the Sundance Institute introduced this year a public code of conduct that states attendees have the right to experience the festival free of “harassment, discrimination, sexism, and threatening or disrespectful behavior.” Those who violate the code are subject to have credentials and access revoked without notice or refund. To enforce this, the Sundance Institute has partnered with the Utah Attorney General’s office to set up a 24-hour hotline (801-834-1944) for reports of violations.
“At the end of the day, Sundance isn’t just a place people go to watch movies. It’s a ginormous network of events and people, some of whom are working professionals, some of whom want to be working professionals and some of whom just want to party. They all kind of mesh together in completely unregulated environments,” said Eric Kohn, IndieWire’s deputy editor and chief critic.
One high-profile example of that was in 2015, when actor Emile Hirsch pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault for putting a female studio executive in a chokehold and body-slamming her at a nightclub during the festival.
“Ultimately this is kind of a rip off the Band-Aid moment,” Kohn said.
Weinstein’s shadow won’t just affect the social aspects of the festival, but the acquisitions market as well, which was already skittish after the 2016 collapse of Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation,” when a rape allegation from his past surfaced right before release.
There’s also the continued disruption of big streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon, which last year spent big bucks to acquire films like “Mudbound” ($12.5 million) and “The Big Sick” ($12 million), and the ever-present threat that what might be a hot title in Park City will fail to catch on with audiences — just look at “Patti Cake$,” which Fox Searchlight bought for $9.5 million, and then went on to earn a meager $1.5 million at the box office.
“Who knows if the new big players are going to buy things in the same way that they did last year,” said film critic Amy Nicholson. “It feels like we’re figuring out the future of movies right now. The old guard is gone and the new guard is taking shape. It feels really fresh this year.”
And with no obvious breakout hit going into the festival, it could be a year for some true discoveries.
“Last year there was a surprise screening of a midnight film called ‘Get Out’ and that obviously proved to be one of the biggest hits of the year,” said Leonard. “Maybe there will be something we don’t even know about that will emerge.”
The festival runs through Jan. 28.