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At Sundance, filmmakers say the space to get indie films made is shrinking

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Since 1978, independent filmmakers have aspired to premiere at what would become the Sundance Film Festival. It used to be that movies would get buzz, spark a bidding war, get sold to a studio for theater distribution. NPR's Mandalit del Barco was at this year's festival to see if that still happens.

(APPLAUSE)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Opening at Sundance before audiences of enthusiastic cinephiles is still a thrill for indie filmmakers. Among those making their Sundance debuts this year was Sean Wang with his coming-of-age film "Didi."

SEAN WANG: Premiering at Sundance is surreal and really a dream come true.

DEL BARCO: "Didi" picked up two major awards at Sundance, and this week another of Wang's films was also nominated for an Oscar. Even so, "Didi" hasn't yet been sold for distribution.

WANG: It seems like the industry is in a very uncertain place, not just in terms of sales and acquisitions. You know, you hear every other day that all these studios are letting go of hundreds and hundreds of people. You know, new heads come on. They're having to reimagine their whole infrastructure. And it's a big question mark.

DEL BARCO: At the premiere of their new film, "I Saw The TV Glow," Jane Schoenbrun worried about the fate of edgy alternative movies as the film market tightens.

JANE SCHOENBRUN: Independent film in America becomes more about training people to become Marvel directors and less about creating a viable alternative where more radical visions can be seen and appreciated.

DEL BARCO: But the climate for selling an indie film is even shaky for filmmakers who have worked on big-budget Marvel movies, like Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote and co-directed "Freaky Tales." The movie about Nazi-bashing punks and 1980s rap in Oakland also features Pedro Pascal.

RYAN FLECK: We just feel fortunate to have gotten this movie made. The climate is rough. I mean, it's hard to make strange, odd movies, you know?

DEL BARCO: As the festival winds down, a few Sundance films did get multimillion-dollar deals, including a new documentary about "Superman" star Christopher Reeve, a Jesse Eisenberg comedy, "A Real Pain," and a buzzy thriller called "It's What's Inside." But by all accounts, the market is slow.

JOHN SLOSS: It's a disrupted time.

DEL BARCO: Producer John Sloss says gone are the days when indie movies created all-night bidding frenzies, like when he made deals for films such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Napoleon Dynamite."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NAPOLEON DYNAMITE")

JON HEDER: (As Napoleon Dynamite) Can you bring me my chapstick?

AARON RUELL: (As Kip) No, Napoleon.

HEDER: (As Napoleon Dynamite) But my lips hurt real bad. Ugh, idiot.

DEL BARCO: John Sloss is CEO of Cinetic Media and has been coming to Sundance since 1985. He says times have changed post-COVID. Streamers are cutting costs and seem less desperate to buy content.

SLOSS: I think it's a challenging period, a hangover from the pandemic. The theatrical business is still not what it was, and the streamers are here for documentary films. But in terms of scripted films and discovery films, that is not a priority for the streamers. I mean, they're looking for features, but they're looking for features with movie stars.

DEL BARCO: One film Sloss successfully found a deal for is "Hit Man," which Netflix already bought for $20 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIT MAN")

GLEN POWELL: (As Gary Johnson) Am I the right guy to eliminate your problem?

DEL BARCO: "Hit Man" is the latest from writer-director Richard Linklater. At the festival, he reminisced about his first film, "Slacker," which screened at Sundance in 1990.

RICHARD LINKLATER: It was just the weird film. Today, it wouldn't even get in - it would be a midnighter at best, so some kind of fringe film. And, you know, we made our mark. We were kind of such a different kind of original film. But the industry did not come crawling after me for that title. What it did is kind of qualify me as a filmmaker, I guess, in their eyes. And then they were interested in looking at the next script I was working on.

DEL BARCO: Linklater would go on to make movies like "Dazed And Confused," "Boyhood," and "Before Sunrise."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEFORE SUNRISE")

JULIE DELPY: (As Celine) I met a guy on the train, and I got off with him in Vienna. We're still there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you crazy?

DEL BARCO: But Linklater laments that today, the studios and streamers don't seem as interested in gambling on or nurturing unknown filmmakers. It's been 35 years since Steven Soderbergh's indie film "Sex, Lies, And Videotape" created a sensation at Sundance and kicked off a new era of American indie films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE")

ANDIE MACDOWELL: (As Ann) Let's make a videotape.

JAMES SPADER: (As Graham) I don't think that's a good idea.

DEL BARCO: Soderbergh reflected back on that first indie movie he made when he was 25 years old.

STEVEN SODERBERGH: A larger audience was ready to see something that didn't feel like it was made by a committee or a corporation. People were hungry for that. So it's just timing.

DEL BARCO: And what about the timing now?

SODERBERGH: I think everybody's trying to figure out what works. What I take away from last year is the two biggest movies were made by filmmakers who came out of the independent world and then were very smart about how to use the system.

DEL BARCO: Soderbergh was referring to Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, two indie darlings whose box-office hits "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" are now up for the top Oscars prize. He points out that with control over his films, Steven Spielberg was also an indie filmmaker making commercial hits in the 1970s. Soderbergh says he's thankful to still have that kind of freedom. He was back at the festival 35 years after his first Sundance premiere, with his experimental new ghost movie "Presence."

SODERBERGH: If you'd said to me, you'll still be working and you'll bring a movie to the festival, I would think that I'm the luckiest person you know. I've been able to have control over my own work, so I won the lottery.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.