Sundance, Netflix, and the Next Golden Age of Movies

 The Egyptian Theatre on Main Street in Park City.

The Egyptian Theatre on Main Street in Park City.

The new Golden Age of Television began at HBO in the early 2000s, migrated to basic cable by the start of the 2010s, and is now referred to as "Peak TV", with Netflix and Amazon Prime enabling a rapid expansion in the availability of televisual entertainment. During this same period, Hollywood largely abandoned the so-called mid-budget feature, focusing on the superhero and franchise business full-time. Unless a studio wants to win an Oscar or placate a star, serious dramas just don't get made anymore.

It's logical enough, and plays to the strength of each: storytelling is for your living room, and spectacle is for the multiplex. Still, the best feature films create an atmosphere and mood not possible in a series or a sequel—think ChinatownRaging BullDonnie Darko, or Her—and sadly these perfectly realized uses of the medium are now farther and fewer between.

It's against this backdrop that I've attended the Sundance Film Festival each year since 2010. More than just being a mid-winter getaway, you could say I'm searching for the same excitement of discovery that I recall happening on a weekly basis in the 1990s. This was the era that gave us gave us Tarantino, Fincher, Aronofsky, Andersons P.T. and Wes, and the Brothers Nolan. All are still making movies—and some have dabbled in television—but a new generation of film auteurs hasn't followed. The best and brightest are now working in television—or maybe Silicon Valley. As the co-host of a podcast about ambitious and challenging movies (Enter the Void), I can sometimes feel a bit like an art preservationist.

Like so many industries, the internet has upended the old economics of visual entertainment, and the middle has been squeezed out. In theaters, there are franchises and art house fare. Online, you have 10-episode seasons and YouTube videos. Movies are still around, sure, but they're no longer at the center of the cultural discussion.

If movies are ever going to get back into the conversation, it will probably need the streaming services. Distant as that press-play revolution may seem right now, it might already be coming true. Starting in 2016, Amazon and Netflix have been among the biggest buyers of films at Sundance, while the traditional studios have become more selective. Whereas the studios need to make their money back on each film via ticket sales—and too many don't—Amazon and Netflix are building catalogs to attract subscribers. Netflix has committed to spending $6 billion on content in 2017 alone. Recently, Apple has made noise about getting into original content, which could trigger a full-on deal-making stampede.

And the streaming services are not just buying films—they are also starting to produce them. Last year was the first time I saw an Amazon logo before a screening, and this year was the first for Netflix—with the same ba-dunk-whoosh-ongggg you'll hear before Stranger Things or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Both times, the audience tittered. But they'll get used to it.

I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore

As luck would have it, this year a Netflix production won Sundance's top prize. It's called I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore, a cute romantic comedy / violent crime thriller with Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood. A traditional studio would never release a film with a title so clunky, and indeed it will never play in theaters—but it will be on your Netflix home screen by the end of the month.

For aspiring feature filmmakers and film buffs alike, this may be best development in a generation. It's still possible that television will continue to dominate watercooler conversations—or Slack threads—but for the first time since I was a teenager, 90-minute movies have a path back to cultural relevance.

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Other films I saw this year, which you may wish to check out at some point:

 Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press

Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press

  • Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press
    A documentary roughly 60% about Hulk Hogan's Peter Thiel-backed lawsuit against Gawker, 30% about Sheldon Adelson's secret purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and 10% about Donald Trump's war on truth. It may have the record for the latest final cut in Sundance history, as it closes with footage from this year's inauguration. Netflix acquired it, along with a dozen others.
  • An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
    What has Al Gore been up to in the last decade? Pretty much the same as the last time we checked in. This sequel to An Inconvenient Truth portrays Gore as a bit paunchier, a bit lonelier, spending less time giving Keynote talks and more time training others to the same, while negotiating at the Paris climate change conference in 2015. Paramount will bring it to theaters in July, I assume on a fairly limited basis.
 Bushwick

Bushwick

  • Bushwick
    Think Cloverfield meets Red Dawn meets Children of Men. As Brooklyn is being invaded by a black helicopter force, a pretty grad student and a hulking military vet must team up to cross the apocalyptic cityscape. I saw this at a midnight screening where everyone was half in the bag, but I think I'd have dug it anyway. This one got a theatrical deal done, so be on the lookout.
  • Columbus
    So there's this guy with a Vimeo channel who goes by the name Kogonada, whose film criticism via mashup is nearly an art form unto itself, and somebody gave him a shot to direct his own feature, co-starring John Cho (Harold & Kumar, Star Trek). It's a small-town character study, a bit like long-ago Sundance hit Garden State, but more nuanced, less saccharine. I didn't hear if it was acquired, so an iTunes rental may be your best bet.
 Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs

  • Reservoir Dogs
    Speaking of Tarantino, his first feature debuted at Sundance 25 years ago (!) and this year screened before a sellout audience at Park City's largest venue, followed by a discussion including QT himself, producer Lawrence Bender, and co-star Michael Madsen. Fun fact: Madsen wanted to play Mr. Pink, and Bender would have played Nice Guy Eddie instead of Chris Penn if the money hadn't come through.

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Postscript: From the 1980s to the present day, few Sundance films ever receive wide theatrical release. The proliferation of streaming services has made it possible—if not necessarily likely—for some to find an audience. Two personal favorites from Sundances past that were never properly distributed (and which I'll bet you've never heard of) can be found via iTunes and Amazon rental, respectively: The Voices, with Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick, a black comedy about a lovelorn, mentally unstable man whose pets encourage him toward murder; and The Pursuit of Loneliness, a black-and-white drama about the search for an elderly patient's next-of-kin over 24 hours in L.A.

—WILLIAM BEUTLER