‘Freaky Tales,’ Kristen Stewart and Christopher Nolan help kick off Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY, Utah – Thousands of cinema lovers, Hollywood celebrities, industry executives and filmmakers from around the world have arrived in a very snowy Park City, Utah, for 10 days of movie watching.

The 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival, the world’s premier showcase for independent film, kicked off Thursday with a starry gala honoring festival veterans such as Kristen Stewart and Christopher Nolan and numerous world premieres.

Nineteen films played on day one, including documentaries about Brian Eno, Lollapalooza and Frida Kahlo, Yance Ford’s inquiry into policing in America, “Power,” as well as the mock government experiment “Girls State.” In fiction premieres, some lucky ticketholders were among the first to see Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 80s-set “Freaky Tales” or “Thelma,” featuring June Squibb as a Los Angeles grandmother who gets scammed and goes on a mission to get her money back with the late Richard Roundtree.

The festival has always been a major sales market for studios and distributors looking for films to fill their slates, including both theatrical and streaming releases. But in the aftermath of the dual Hollywood strikes, sales this year could be even more robust. The theatrical release calendar for the first half of the year was “decimated,” producer Jason Blum noted at the opening day press conference. Around 80% of the 91 features playing do not yet have distributors.

“The one positive thing about the strike is that movies that might have struggled shouldn’t because there’s so many holes in the release schedule,” Blum said. “I hope that a bunch of Sundance movies end up in theaters quickly.”

Festival director Eugene Hernandez added that “these films are ready for their audience.”

Blum, a Sundance board member, has had a longstanding relationship with the festival going back to the premiere of “Reality Bites” in 1992, which he said he almost missed because he was trapped “in a snowbank with Ethan Hawke.”

Over the years, Blum has experienced both sides of the acquisition coin at Sundance, as the one buying films (including, he laughed, one of the least successful acquisitions ever, “Happy, Texas”) and the one selling them (like Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.”) He also brought Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” to the festival and said the response to that first screening “started the whole thing.”

The main hub of activity remains in Park City, where many of the shops and restaurants on Main Street have been transformed into a hub of branded lounges from various sponsors and media partners. In addition to the venues playing movies around the clock, there are various talks and panels on everything from the legacy of Sundance to making your first feature. There will also be screenings in Salt Lake City, and, beginning on Jan. 25, online showings of select films for virtual festival passholders.

Slightly outside of town Thursday, some of the festival’s most well-heeled attendees gathered at the DeJoria Center in Kamas, Utah, for an opening night fundraising gala in which Nolan, Stewart, “Past Lives” director Celine Song and “The Eternal Memory” director Maite Alberdi received tribute awards.

Eisenberg gave the award to Stewart, who he has worked with on three films: “two gentle talkies and one aggressive shoot ’em up,” he said.

“Kristen is one of these rare performers where she is so committed, so authentic, so feeling, that you almost want to make sure she’s okay at the end of the day,” he said.

Stewart has been coming to Sundance for 20 years and this year has two films debuting: Rose Glass’s crime thriller “Love Lives Bleeding,” which is heading to theaters in March, and “Love Me,” with Steven Yeun, in which a buoy and a satellite fall in love.

“My whole life I have loved this festival,” Stewart said. “I knew that in my bones this was just like a place full of ‘yes’ in a world full of ‘no.’ I couldn’t even understand why, but I knew it.”

Robert Downey Jr. also was on hand to toast his “Oppenheimer” director, who, he said, “is a bit blue because a terrible tragedy has befallen him and I don’t mean to bring this up and I know it’s very personal: He has become recognizable on the street.”

Nolan won a screenwriting award for “Memento” after it screened at Sundance in 2001. Both that film and “Following,” which played “up the hill” at Slamdance, were independently financed before he and his wife and producer Emma Thomas went on to have great successes with studio films.

But Nolan said he doesn’t think he has ever been an independent filmmaker, insofar as filmmaking is dependent on other people, from the crew to those who help get a movie out to the world.

“A lot of people know it came to Sundance, a lot of people know that it was a hit and enabled so much more that came after it for us,” Nolan said.

But, he said, not a lot of people know that earlier, when the film was finished, all the independent distributors passed on buying it and the filmakers found themselves in “terrible limbo” for a year not knowing whether it would ever be seen by an audience.

“It was an appalling position to be in, but so many people became so important in that moment,” Nolan said. “These people who saw the film, believed in it and stood by it, those are the people you depend on as a filmmaker. You can’t get anywhere without them.”

The film festival runs through Jan. 28.

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