Focus at Sundance
Over the last decade, Focus Features has developed a special relationship with the Sundance Film Festival.
The Sundance Film Festival, held every January in the snowy embrace of Park City, Utah, provides ten days of cinematic discovery. Last year, Focus found Lisa Cholodenko’s remarkable The Kids Are All Right. What might we find this year? Focus Features has, of course, been at Sundance each year––to see films, to screen films, and to do business. We thought we’d look back at the how Focus has intersected with America’s premiere film festival over the last few years.
For Focus, 2010 was a busy festival. On Friday, January 22, while Focus’ CEO James Schamus received the Hollywood Reporter’s Indie Icon of Year award at Café Terigo, three films from 2008 Africa First filmmakers were being shown across town as part of a shorts program entitled New African Cinema. A few days later, Focus discovered (and then acquired) Lisa Cholodenko’s smash family comedy The Kids Are All Right, a film that has been receiving awards right and left for its writing (Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg) and acting (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo).
Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre was screened in the US Narrative Feature Films section. On Awards night, the film took home two major prizes: the Directing Award (Dramatic) for Cary Fukunaga and the Cinematography Award (Dramatic) for Adriano Goldman. But the festival was in some ways only the end of the line for this film’s relation with Sundance. In 2005, Fukunaga’s short Victoria Para Chino, a taut tragedy about illegal immigrants locked in a truck at the US border, was selected for the Sundance Film Festival. Based on that film, Sundance asked him to submit a script for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. In 2006, he was invited to return to Utah to work on his new script Sin Nombre at the Sundance Directors’ Lab.
In 2008, Focus Features arrived with In Bruges and left with Hamlet 2. In Bruges, playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh's very dark comedy about a couple of hit men trapped in the storybook city of Bruges, was invited as the opening night film of the Sundance Film Festival. The director and his two stars, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, were in Park City and at the big Focus bash after the premiere.
Later in the week, Andy Fleming’s last minute entry to the festival, Hamlet 2, became a surprise hit. The story of a deluded actor (Steve Coogan) who keeps his art alive by teaching drama at an Arizona high school, had even film critics laughing out loud. And then had distributors up late in to the night negotiating deals.
Although Focus Features didn’t acquire Patricia Foulkrod’s Iraq-war documentary The Ground Truth until several months after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, its impact at the festival went a long way to demonstrating its importance. Christopher Campbell at Cinematical singled the documentary out: “The visuality of the war in Iraq is necessary in abundance, and The Ground Truth is powerful in its ability to not only recount events, but show them as well.” After each screening, audience members with close friends or family in Iraq would stay and talk to the Iraq vets featured in the film.
2005 was a busy year for the Focus acquisition team. Early on in the festival, Focus picked up North American rights for Gaby Dellal’s On A Clear Day, an emotional drama (starring Peter Mullan and Brenda Blethyn) about an unemployed Glaswegian dock worker’s attempt to swim the English Channel. On a Clear Day had its world premiere as one of Sundance’s opening night films.
Later in the week, Focus answered the prayers of Ain’t It Cool News, which wrote after seeing Rian Johnson debut feature Brick: “I'll say it one more time, this is a DETECTIVE story of the most elaborate kind, this movie is haunting, and most importantly, smart. I pray to God in Heaven that this movie gets distribution.” Johnston’s witty mashup of high school drama with Raymond Chandler-like film noir was much admired all around, sharing the Special Jury Prize for "originality of vision” with Miranda July’s Me and You and Everybody We Know.
At Sundance, Shane Acker introduced the world to his unique vision with his short 9, a powerful fable that would later blossom into Focus Features’ animation fantasy of the same name. Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed this year’s Focus comedy Greenberg, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award that year for his drama The Squid and the Whale.
Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, a poignant look at a trip made by Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his close friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) in 1952, premiered at Sundance to much acclaim. After a fierce bidding war for the film, Focus acquired North American rights. The film had another Sundance pedigree in that it was partially produced by South Fork Pictures, Robert Redford’s production banner.
At the awards ceremony, Ryan Fleck’s Gowanus, Brooklyn tied for the Short Filmmaking Award (with When the Storm Comes). Fleck and his filmmaking partner Anna Boden are currently shooting It’s Kind of a Funny Story for Focus Features.