Why American Movies Must Take Risks — Sundance 2023 Report

Is it still possible to launch bold, dangerous movies at America’s most revered film festival? An investigation.

Filmmakers submitted 16,000 movies to Sundance this year for a lineup of 111 features and 65 shorts, but the most fearless cinematic achievement I saw during the festival was made 28 years ago. Director Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation,” a zany, violent, and erotically charged depiction of Gen-X malaise, returned to the Egyptian Theater, where it last screened in 1995, in a 4k restoration.

“That’s the scene of the crime!” Araki beamed to me a few hours before the new screening — and indeed, watching “Doom Generation” today, it’s almost as if Araki got away with murder, much like his ambling protagonists.

Reassembled by Strand ahead of its April release, the surrealist road trip at the center “Doom Generation” finds a wayward teen couple (James Duval and a pre-“Scream” Rose McGowan) in a spiral of mayhem that starts once the troublemaking hedonist Xavier (Jonathan Schaech) jumps into their car. A series of ludicrous murders, all of them in self-defense from the cartoonish apocalyptic America around them, pile up around this emerging bisexual love triangle — and no matter how ludicrous it gets, the persecution of its anti-heroes stands out.

The ‘90s-as-hell aesthetic might have a few nostalgic flourishes, but Araki’s polemical depiction of a country defined by a culture of fear still stings. Right down to the finale’s harrowing Nazi showdown, “Doom Generation” operates with a razor-sharp blend of wit and discomfort unafraid to draw blood.

Which led me to ponder: How is it that none of this year’s Sundance movies could muster such bite? At 63, Araki still cracks up like a giddy teenager about what he pulled off back then. “Audiences were just stunned,” he said. “The movie was so polarizing, people were so outraged, and I was so excited about it! It’s even shocking by 2023 standards.”

Today, Sundance and the American cultural climate doesn’t invite the same kind of spiky cinematic gambles. Once festival hype began to revolve more around its identity as commercial launchpad, a year hasn’t gone by without movies standing out for how much they coddle audiences, rather than stunning them with something fresh.

"Theater Camp"

“Theater Camp”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

This year, it was the cheery mockumentary “Theater Camp,” which sold to perennial buyer Searchlight for $10 million. I know many people adored “Theater Camp,” with its gooey chronicle of musical theater nerds attempting to pull together their summer production after the head of the operation falls into a coma. It’s a total charmer and easy viewing with a hilarious song to cap things off. But no, this is not the Sundance factor I’m looking for. I set out to find glimmers of the alternative. Fortunately, there were a few.

For movies to retain their power as an art form, they have to take bold, adventurous swings, be willing to make their viewers squirm, and leave them grappling with the reasons why. The idealist in me wants to dream of iconoclasts taking charge of the medium, but movies have never been harder to get made, seen, and deliver a return on investment. For its first in-person gathering since 2020, the air in Park City felt colder than it had been in many editions — a tidy metaphor for the market itself.

Last year, horror efforts across many Sundance sections reflected the market’s desire for easy genre wins. This time, the only throughline was many companies no longer trusted the open market. Everyone from A24 to Neon, Amazon, Apple, and Netflix came to the festival with in-house productions. There were some exciting acquisitions (more on that in a second), but the balance tipped toward Sundance as a place to promote work more than to discover it. This shift makes it much harder to produce outside the system unless the project has been reverse-engineered for exactly what buyers want.

However, the movies at this year’s festival with budgets within the $5-10 million range — including “Fair Play,” “Infinity Pool,” and “Magazine Dreams” — represent what it takes to take risks in the current climate. At one condo party, a veteran producer told me he doesn’t pitch projects to investors for more than $4.5 million. I was reminded of my report in this column last year, when BRON Studios pulled out of the blockbuster business for a renewed commitment to lower-budgets under $10 million. Staying within those constraints, it’s still possible to create work both challenging and viable.

PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 23: Filmmaker Gregg Araki attends the 2023 Sundance Film Festival "The Doom Generation" Special Screening at Egyptian Theatre on January 23, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Gregg Araki at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

Getty Images

It’s still remarkable that Araki made “Doom Generation” for a mere $750,000. (That’s about $1.5 million in 2023 dollars.) “Everything in the movie is there for a personal, artistic reason,” Araki said. “It’s exactly what I wanted to say as a queer, punk, angry artist in the early 1990s.”

He acknowledged the then-burgeoning industry for American cinema laid a stable foundation. “I was born at just the right time,” he said. “Punk rock music was just happening when I was in college, and I started making movies right when Sundance was becoming Sundance. Christine Vachon, Todd Haynes, all that shit was happening here. I don’t know what it would be like now to be 25, 30 years old with your first movie.”

After all, today’s fired-up youth don’t need a feature-length mirror to feel seen. “I have a niece and a nephew in their twenties,” Araki said. “They don’t go to movies. They don’t have the passion for that storytelling the way my generation did.”

On his flight into Salt Lake City, Araki watched in awe as a kid next to him scrolled through TikTok. “Is that what kids do now? I don’t understand it,” he said. “It feels like empty consumption of images. It doesn’t have the satisfaction of seeing a movie with characters. I’d rather listen to an album than sit there and watch influencers doing some weird shit for 30 seconds. It doesn’t nourish your soul the way anything of substance does.”

For risk-taking filmmakers, it makes sense to adjust expectations: Craft stories on the smallest scale possible. That $10 million ceiling shouldn’t even be part of the discussion until it’s absolutely necessary. “I always feel like the bigger you get, the more people you have to please and asses you have to kiss,” Araki said. “Most of my movies have been in that really low range.”

The challenge in making ambitious movies goes beyond budgetary restrictions. It also involves the changing threshold for tolerating discomfort and the encroaching sense that any radical statement could backfire. The presumption of cancel culture may be reductive, but it certainly scares filmmakers from taking real chances.

Toward the end of the festival, I spoke with another major American director who emerged from the same Sundance era — Ira Sachs, whose first feature “The Delta” premiered at the festival in 1997. His latest movie, “Passages,” is a sexually charged depiction of a gay man who cheats on his husband with a woman he meets at a bar. Set in Paris with an all-European cast, the movie provides the latest example of a director finding more hospitable circumstances abroad (a subject I explored not long ago).

A still from Passages by Ira Sachs, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute


“Making a movie outside of America, you exist in a different set of mores and traditions,” Sachs told me. “This film is aligned with a kind of cinema I’m engaged with, in which the body is not hidden. That sensuality and sexuality is sort of central to European filmmaking, while the America that we know now was created by a puritanical approach to sex and the body.”

Ever since his previous movie, “Frankie,” Sachs has found it possible to work autonomously through the support of European producers Michel Merkt and Said Ben Said (in recent years at Cannes, these two are all across the lineup). Sachs beamed about his ability to work uninhibited by commercial expectations.

While the business demands that products fit the zeitgeist, the romantic drama of “Passages” is timeless. “The biggest risk is that this film isn’t about anything in this market,” Sachs said. “It doesn’t have a theme; it has a story and characters. The texture of the intimacy between these actors is really what makes the movie. That is a risk commercially, but you can’t reduce it in a way that’s capitalistic.” And yet “Passages” was scaled to the buying landscape, ending Sundance with adventurous arthouse buyer MUBI as its distributor.

Still, Sachs bemoaned that filmmaking uninhibited by commercial demands is largely unsustainable. “What’s been lost is a generation of filmmakers who have been able to sustain making this sort of cinema their whole careers,” Sachs said. “There are fewer and fewer of those. That is something we who believe in and love this kind of cinema have to grapple with.”

Fortunately, this year’s lineup contained examples from newer directors willing to attempt audacious material. Netflix plunked down $20 million for director Chloe Domont’s high-stakes corporate thriller “Fair Play” (produced by Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman while they work on another “Knives Out” sequel), but it’s also an exciting example of edgy material making its way to a larger audience. Domont’s thrilling two-hander is loaded with contemptible people, disturbing sexual encounters, and epithets designed to make you shudder.

Domont doesn’t play it safe, and it’s especially impressive when you consider that the same premise could be a Netflix rom-com. “I love to shock,” Domont said. “I think the value of shock is so important in cinema.“Those are the movies that I love to watch — the films that mortify me, that just make me hold my mouth and go, ‘I can’t believe she just said that.’ It’s about pushing the envelope a little bit farther than someone else would, but still grounding it in reality. That is the best form of entertainment. I don’t think I ever censored myself. I had fun pushing it.”

Domont, who spent the past decade making a living as a TV director on shows like “Ballers,” said she had grown disillusioned by the state of American movies. “Things are sanitized,” she said. “Filmmakers aren’t coming in with a really strong perspective. I definitely don’t think there’s enough bite out there. People make safe, receptive stories. We all have to do better in trying to stir the pot.”

That assessment echoed a similar insight I heard from Brandon Cronenberg this week when we discussed his wild midnight movie “Infinity Pool,” a sex-filled tourist satire nightmarish and profound in its vision of Western excess. “I feel like just shock for the sake of shock has limited value,” he said. “In my movies, you’re looking at bland people in a bland context who then, because of that freedom from responsibility, start to have this animalistic violence and carnality resurface. That contrast is really important.”

Likewise, I was impressed by U.S. Dramatic Competition entry “Magazine Dreams,” which positioned Jonathan Majors as a troubled bodybuilder without sentimentalizing his struggles. Filmmaker Elijah Bynum doesn’t shy from making his protagonist’s journey a tough sit.

“We knew we were making something that was provocative, given the subject matter and some of the themes,” he told me after we met at the movie’s after party. “We knew there would probably be some division among the responses.” There was, and “Magazine Dreams” ended Sundance without distribution — but buyers will come to it with time. It will find a home, make its money back, and maybe even score Majors an Oscar nomination in the process.

"Magazine Dreams"

Jonathan Majors in “Magazine Dreams”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

These directors think through the ideas of their work so well that its connotations are beyond reproach — or at least eminently defensible, should mobs form to take them down. Consensus is boring; stir up the discourse and you’re on the right track. Clearly, the new mandate for directors with something to say is an element of fearlessness, paired with cohesive ideas. Shock for shock’s sake need not apply.

The support system is out there. I ran into a number of eager producers with more than dollars signs on their mind, including Ari Aster and producing partner Lars Knudsen. Their company, Square Peg, is finishing Aster’s third feature “Beau is Afraid,” which A24 will launch without a festival run — a strategy also used for Aster’s “Midsommer.”

They used the Sundance environment to scout talent as they build a slate, which already included new projects from the likes of Guy Maddin, Don Hertzfeldt, and the Zellner brothers. “We’re looking to support misfits like us,” Knudsen told me at a party for “Infinity Pool.” Aster later went to see Sundance midnight entry “Talk to Me,” which A24 picked up a few days later.

They weren’t the only filmmaking team scouring screenings. Robert Pattinson’s new company Icki Eneo Arlo signed on to support Sebastian Silva’s daring gay sex satire “Rotting in the Sun” (Pattinson production executive Marie-Louise Khondji also sat on the festival’s short film jury.) Sundance-minted director Cooper Raiff (“Cha Cha Real Smooth”) made the rounds with a burgeoning production company of his own.

Needless to say, there are plenty of producers who seek boundary-pushing filmmakers, and this is quite the time for that kind of work. “There’s fucking Nazis and homophobia in ‘Doom Generation,’” Araki told me. “Now I feel like it’s all still here and worse than ever. There’s much anger and chaos in the world.” He laughed. “That’s why it’s cool that my movie can exist again.”

A few minutes later, he sat down for a dinner on Main Street that included Strand executive Marcus Hu, former Sundance director John Cooper, and Sundance programming director Kim Yutani, who was a production assistant on “Doom Generation.” Araki sat next to Duval as they chuckled over the some of the queasy responses they witnessed from premiere audiences in 1994. When the hour of the new screening drew near, Duval asked if he could nab an extra ticket for his friend, a former member of punk rock band Black Flag. Araki stood up in excitement. “One of the motherfuckers from Black Flag is coming?” he asked. “Hey, we’re still cool!”

There’s an argument that the conditions of the “Doom Generation” generation have passed; today, nothing could shake the establishment with the same level of rambunctious glee and get away with it. I’m not convinced. The Oscar nominations come out during Sundance with a bizarre, unclassifiable sci-fi movie leading the pack, one that challenged some viewers and managed to make a grandiose statement about the immigrant experience in America.

This year’s Sundance proved American movies can still be disruptive and challenging. For any filmmaker contemplating their options on the basis of what the business might indicate, please: Keep making weird and dangerous stuff. Don’t let the market dictate the medium, because that will only give the people what they want, never what they deserve.

Find me with your feedback to this week’s column: [email protected]

Check out earlier columns here.

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