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NPR Arts & Life

Sundance A Lab For Changing Models In Film, TV

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Sundance Film Festival opened in the mountains of Utah last night. It's the annual Mecca of independent and documentary films founded by actor Robert Redford. With Hollywood studios fixated on blockbuster franchises, smaller stories, like the ones that break out of Sundance, are increasingly shifting to TV screens and streaming services. To hear how that shift is changing Sundance and what movies we can actually look forward to in 2015, we're joined now by Steve Zeitchik of the LA Times. Hey there, Steve.

STEVE ZEITCHIK: Hey, Audie. How are you?

CORNISH: Good. Let's start with this year's program. What are the most high-profile premieres at Sundance this year?

ZEITCHIK: Well, a lot of interesting titles as ever. And of course, everybody looking for the next "Boyhood" and "Whiplash," the two movies that really broke out of last year's festival. One film that's very high on a lot of people's radars, mine included, a film called "End Of The Tour," which is an adaptation with Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace, focusing on the late iconic author's period after he published "Infinite Jest." A lot of controversy around this film because the Wallace estate has basically disavowed it, as has his editor. That film is premiering tonight here in Sundance, so going to be a lot of interest on that. Other movies premiering - James Franco has two big movies. One called "True Story," another called "I Am Michael" with Zachary Quinto, which is a film about a gay activist who renounces his homosexuality and becomes a pastor. So a lot of movies; you never know what's really going to break out until we get further in. But certainly, with last year's track record, some of these movies have raised some hopes pretty high.

CORNISH: We're hearing a lot about the new players at Sundance this year - Amazon and Netflix, right, streaming services. What does that mean for independent film?

ZEITCHIK: It's been very interesting to see how that's evolved over the last couple years. And Amazon and Netflix now each saying they're going to make films as well in addition to making TV, so they've even further complicated the model. But all those executives are here, a lot of TV executives are here. And a lot of filmmakers are kind of thinking now in a two-pronged direction, as they are in the world at large. But certainly, here thinking about how do we, you know, make content that's both, perhaps, eligible for the big screen but can also be kind of formatted out in an episodic way?

One project that's particularly caught my attention, Audie, in that regard is something called "Animals," which is produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, who are behind the HBO show "Togetherness" that's on now and have long been Sundance favorites. They've got a project called "Animals" that is essentially a fully-formed TV show they've produced with two young creators, 10 episodes all in the can - very unusual for TV. Usually networks and studios get involved in those.

They've made them on their own, independent-style, Sundance-style, bringing it here to the festival, hoping to sell it in what I think is a first of a 10-episode TV series trying to get distribution the way a lot of indie films come into this festival and try to get distribution. So the model really is changing. And I think filmmakers are really starting to focus on that.

CORNISH: So how is Sundance as a festival adjusting to this? I mean, it's always prided itself on being a launching pad for films, right, on the big screen. That was the whole point, to give these indie filmmakers a shot.

ZEITCHIK: Absolutely, and I think that's been one of the big questions they've faced. And they'd be the first to tell you they're not quite sure how to deal with it. I think giving platforms to things like "Animals," which again, you know, the program directors - I talked to them a couple days ago. They said we have no idea if this is going to work. But we have to get on board with this because this is where creativity is headed.

You know, we've seen Cary Fukunaga, who, as many people now know, the creator of the HBO hit "True Detective," but actually came out of Sundance and was an indie director of some note. He was just here at the festival talking about the same issue. I think everybody's kind of grappling with it at a festival that's called a film festival, but is very much about TV as well.

CORNISH: And then I feel like this is a question people ask every year. But given what you've described, I feel like I should ask it now about whether Sundance is still necessary. You know, does an executive have to fly all the way to Utah to see a movie he might be able to get a link to online?

ZEITCHIK: You know, it's a very good question. And it's one in the media we deal with as well because a lot of times we say hey, there's a lot of movies for us to see, can you send us a link? And some of the more accommodating producers oblige. All that said, I do think it is relevant. I think there's a serendipity factor when you gather a lot of people in a room - creative people, business people - deals happen at late-night parties, before a screening, ideas germinate. These things are all very relevant. I don't think for all the ways technology has made these areas more efficient, I don't think we're going to see it going away anytime soon.

CORNISH: That's Steve Zeitchik of the LA Times. Thank you so much for talking with us.

ZEITCHIK: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.