For documentary filmmakers, there’s no place like the Sundance Film Festival.
The mountainside festival which kicks off Thursday in Park City, Utah, has become known for launching nonfiction films to box office successes and awards, and this year is shaping up to be no different. The slate boasts a wide array of films about fallen titans, from Harvey Weinstein to Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes, music legends Miles Davis and David Crosby, two of Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse accusers, the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal, Apollo 11, Mike Wallace, Toni Morrison and Dr. Ruth.
In the past five years, three of the best documentary feature Oscar winners got their start at Sundance — “Icarus,” ”O.J.: Made in America” and “20 Feet from Stardom.” And most of this year’s Oscars shortlist premiered and won special honors at last year’s festival (like “Shirkers,” ”On Her Shoulders,” ”Of Fathers and Sons,” ”Dark Money,” ”Crime + Punishment” and “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”) and some are considered shoo-ins for a nomination, like “Three Identical Strangers,” ”RGB,” ”Minding the Gap” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“Sundance is the greatest launching pad,” said filmmaker Julia Reichert. “I can’t think of another festival that shows fiction and documentaries that puts as much honor, respect and spotlight on the documentary.”
The three-time Oscar nominee returns this year with “American Factory,” looking at what happened when a Chinese billionaire bought a closed General Motors factory outside of her hometown of Dayton, Ohio and created 2,000 manufacturing jobs in an area still suffering from the plant’s initial closure.
“Most documentary filmmakers aspire to get into Sundance. It’s such a fantastic festival with great potential for distribution and raising the profile of a film. But particularly for films about American politics, it’s really a natural choice,” said Rachel Lears, who directed “Knock Down the House.” It follows four women looking to upset incumbents in a Congressional primary, including first-term New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is expected to be at the festival.
The prolific documentarian Alex Gibney is also back with his latest, “The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley” which looks at the rise and fall of the multibillion dollar tech health care company Theranos and the psychology of its founder, Elizabeth Holmes.
“(Sundance has) always promoted docs and it’s always promoted them in a way that puts them on the same footing as scripted films,” Gibney said.
One of the most anticipated premieres is “Leaving Neverland,” a 233-minute film from BAFTA-winning director Dan Reed about two of Michael Jackson’s accusers. It will screen only once in Park City, on Jan. 25, before airing on HBO and British public broadcaster Channel 4 in two installments this spring. The Jackson estate has already denounced it as “just another rehash of dated and discredited allegations.” Jackson was acquitted of molestation charges in 2005.
For some, Sundance was an obvious choice because of the subject matter. That was the case for the Harvey Weinstein documentary, “Untouchable,” from director Ursula Macfarlane. Her film charts the disgraced mogul’s career from his early days as a music promotor in Buffalo, to the heyday of Miramax and up to his fall in October of 2017 with the torrent of sexual misconduct and rape allegations against him that spanned decades, some of which allegedly have occurred at the festival. Weinstein has denied all allegations of non-consensual sex.
It was a sprint to get it done in time for this year’s festival, however, having less than a year to do so.
“We always wanted it to be submitted to Sundance and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves …. Halfway through the summer we thought no, we can’t, this isn’t going to work. And (producer) Simon (Chinn) came in and saw a rough cut and said let’s send it. It was all hands on deck. It’s been an intense few months,” Macfarlane said. “It’s the perfect place for a film about Harvey. It’s where he had a lot of successes and he changed it and the whole kind of vibe of the industry.”
For entirely different reasons, the team behind “Love, Antosha,” about the life of the late actor Anton Yelchin, also sought out a coveted Sundance spot.
“Anton had so many projects that went through Sundance. It was always a home away from home for him,” said director Garret Price. “For his last movie to be there, essentially, it all feels like the way it’s supposed to be. I think it’s where he would have wanted it.”
Yelchin died at age 27 in 2016 in a “freak accident,” when his Jeep rolled down his driveway and pinned him against a pillar and a security fence.
“I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story and a linear story through his eyes,” Price said, who will be doing interviews at the festival alongside Yelchin’s parents. “The challenge of a story like this is it ultimately ends in tragedy but I didn’t want to make a tragic story. I wanted to make an inspiring story.”
Whether a first-time director like Price or an Oscar-winner like Gibney, filmmakers are also energized by the moment documentary films are having in the culture, which is good for those looking for distribution deals. This past year a number of Sundance docs went on to gross more at the box office than some of the buzziest scripted films. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” netted $22.8 million, “RBG” made $14 million and “Three Identical Strangers” grossed $12.3 million. Reichert thinks there’s a particular thirst for non-fiction because of the decline of in-depth reporting from local newspapers, and Gibney added that the quality has improved too.
“Docs have gotten better over the past 10-15 years. They’re just more engaging… And we’ve been able to educate the audience and now they come to these stories not because it’s spinach but because it’s a full meal,” Gibney said. “You can get your spinach and have an ice cream sundae at the end.”