By Ryan O’Toole
We now find ourselves in the weird nexus between Sundance and the Oscars, where this year’s festival has just wrapped up and announced the winners of its awards. Yet, we’re still waiting to see if last year’s Sundance Film Festival will yield any Oscar nominations for its lineup. In the world of film festivals, especially regarding the Oscars, Sundance exists in a world of its own. It’s the one significant outlier amongst the other prestigious festivals films that we can look to for a jumping-off point at the beginning of the year. For starters, it happens in January, months before any other. Most festivals, like Toronto or Telluride, take place in the fall and offer an excellent launchpad for awards conversations to start just as awards season is beginning. Sundance focuses on smaller independent productions, so it’s beneficial for any potential awards season contenders to start building buzz early and spread word of mouth.
The primary goal of the festival is to showcase new and emerging talent. Historically, many great filmmakers have shown their feature directorial debuts at the festival and received the big break that launched their careers. This smaller, slightly scrappier oeuvre of films aren’t necessarily dreaming of Oscar glory when they premiere, which makes their occasional success all the more miraculous and organic. There have been a lot of successful Oscar campaigns from films that premiered at Sundance over the years, but has this always been the case? And if not, what does that mean for how the Oscars or Sundance have changed over the years?
Documentaries And Short Films
While the narrative feature films of Sundance have had an ever-changing relationship with the Academy, the projects that have had the most consistent success at the Oscars have been the documentary features and the short films. While Sundance had existed in some fashion as the Utah/US Film Festival and then the US Film and Video Festival since 1978, the Sundance Film Festival that we all know today really began in 1984. Within the first two years of this new festival, a film that premiered there found Oscar gold. That film was the documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984), which premiered at the 1985 festival, won a special jury prize, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature months later. Throughout the years, twelve Oscar-winning documentaries have premiered in Park City. Along with “The Times of Harvey Milk,” “American Dream” (1990), “In the Shadow of Stars” (1991), “When We Were Kings” (1996), “Born Into Brothels” (2004), “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), “Man on Wire” (2008), “The Cove” (2009), “Searching for Sugarman” (2012), “20 Feet From Stardom” (2013), “Icarus” (2017), and “American Factory” (2019) all went on to win the golden statue on Oscar night with many more nominations coming from the Sundance selections as well.
The short films (live-action, animated, and documentary) have also seen continued Oscar success, with Sundance selections garnering nominations and wins across the three categories consistently throughout the years. The height of Sundance’s domination came in 1994, where, after a three-year stretch where a Sundance film had won one short film category, the Best Live-Action Short Film Oscar was a tie between Franz Kafka’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Trevor,” both of which premiered at Sundance.
The 1980s – The Two Sides Of Sundance
The early years of Sundance saw the festival still trying to find its footing. In its first couple of years, Sundance was still transitioning away from the US Film and Video Festival that came before it and transforming into the beacon for the independent film movement of the 1990s.
In 1978, when the festival was called the Utah/US Film Festival, it was much more of a retrospective festival showing films like “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), and “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) to showcase the potential of American independent films. And even when the festival changed its name to Sundance and introduced its Dramatic and Documentary competitions, it kept some of its old structure. For instance, in 1988, the festival screened ninety-nine films, including many in a tribute to the director Samuel Fuller and a showcase of New Argentine cinema. The feature competitions were only a portion of what Sundance was screening. In this era, there were two sides to the Sundance film festival. One was the “launchpad” films – the films playing in competition that were by unknown directors – and the out-of-competition films from established directors. And the latter was the side of Sundance that saw the most attention on the Oscar stage.
The two greatest Oscar successes to come out of Sundance in the 1980s were “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) and “Moonstruck” (1987). But Woody Allen and Norman Jewison both had already won Best Picture and didn’t need Sundance to help their films in the Oscar race. These two films feel at odds with the “emerging filmmakers” identity of the festival nowadays. The other Oscar successes of this period also screened out of competition, with “El Norte” (1983) sneaking into a Best Original Screenplay nomination, “The Trip to Bountiful” (1985) winning Best Actress for Geraldine Page, and “The Killing Fields” (1984) amassing seven Oscar nominations, and winning three of them. But most of the movies from this era that would define the type of movies Sundance champions did not crossover with the Academy. The 1980s saw the start of the American independent movement with Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), The Coen Brothers’ debut “Blood Simple” (1984), and Donna Deitch’s “Desert Hearts” (1985), all being notable movies that premiered at Sundance in its early years that feel much more in line with the “launchpad” idea of what Sundance has become today.
At first glance, films such as “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Moonstruck” feel like they’re too big for Sundance. It’s like Lebron James playing basketball against a bunch of high schoolers. Still, in retrospect, it might be more so that the independent film industry wasn’t big enough. It seems quaint now to show “A Streetcar Named Desire” in order to highlight the potential of independent films. However, it was still a burgeoning idea, and Sundance was still evolving.
The 1990s – The Independent Boom
In 1989, Steven Soderbergh premiered “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” at the Sundance Film Festival. He didn’t know it at the time, but this movie would revolutionize the way movies were made, kicking off the 1990s independent film movement. The film was an instant success, winning the Audience Award at Sundance. After its tremendous response, it was picked up by Miramax, who put it in front of a nationwide audience where it became hugely successful, showing the viability of independent films (and not “A Streetcar Named Desire” independent, but more like a movie with a budget of $1.2 million-grossing over $36 million). It even went on to get a sole Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.
Suddenly, the festival that brought “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” to its first audience continued to be the hub of the independent boom of the early 90s. Movies like “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “Clerks” (1992), “Living In Oblivion” (1995), and “Walking and Talking” (1996) premiered in the dramatic competition and ushered in this new era of independent filmmaking. Now, Sundance didn’t need a “Moonstruck” or “Hannah and Her Sisters.” It had more than enough new talent to choose from and launch new careers in Hollywood.
But while Sundance skewed smaller, the Oscars went bigger, awarding Best Picture to established names like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood and crowning more populist films like “Braveheart” (1995) and “Titanic” (1997). Sundance films seemingly had the same success rate at the Oscars as they always had but now replacing their established names with newcomers.
The three biggest Oscar successes to come out of Park City were “The Usual Suspects” (1995), which was nominated for two Oscars, winning both for Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Spacey and Best Original Screenplay. “Shine” (1996) earned seven total nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won Best Actor for Geoffrey Rush. “The Full Monty” (1997) earned nominations in Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay and won Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. Other Sundance breakouts include the aforementioned “Sex, Lies, and Videotape’s” Best Original Screenplay nomination, as well as “Ulee’s Gold” (1997), making it into Best Actor and “Orlando” (1992), earning below the line nominations in Best Costume Design and Art Direction.
In the second half of the 1990s, the independent films from Sundance were starting to carve their spot into the Oscar race at a rate never seen before, thanks in no small part to the boom in home video rental sales and screeners. None of the films were truly dominant at the Oscars, but they found a more consistent spot that would only continue to grow.
The 2000s – Steady Growth
Right away, the new millennium capitalized on the promise left by the 90s Sundance success stories. In 2000, “You Can Count On Me” (2000) earned two nominations, one in Best Actress for Laura Linney and one in Best Original Screenplay. And from then on, the 2000s saw at least one Sundance film get an Oscar nomination consistently in the top eight categories.
A lot of films would only receive a sole nomination, like Holly Hunter in “Thirteen” (2003), Patricia Clarkson in “Pieces of April” (2003), Alec Baldwin in “The Cooler” (2003), Amy Adams in “Junebug” (2005), Ryan Gosling in “Half Nelson” (2006), Catalina Sandino Moreno in “Maria Full of Grace” (2004), or “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “American Splendor’s” (2003) lone screenplay nominations. Or sometimes they would get a couple of nominations, whether it be a Lead Actress and Screenplay nomination like “Away from Her” (2006) and “Frozen River” (2008) or in “Hustle & Flow’s” case, a Lead Actor nomination, and a Best Original Song win. And for a lot of these nominations, it feels like they were usually the fifth slot amongst the other nominees. Whenever there were four solid contenders but no clear fifth in a category, a Sundance darling would sneak in and get that final Oscar nomination.
At the same time, there were some true Sundance breakthroughs with the Academy across the board. “In the Bedroom” (2001) earned five nominations, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and three acting nominations. And in 2006, “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) earned four nominations. It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Abigail Breslin. It would win Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin. Between the two heavy hitters and the consistent above-the-line nominations, Sundance darlings held a steady presence at the Oscars during this time. But something would happen at the end of the 2000s that would usher in a whole new era for independent films’ performance at the Oscars.
The 2010s – The Sundance Explosion
The story goes that after “The Dark Knight” (2008) was not nominated for Best Picture, the Academy expanded the Best Picture lineup to ten nominees to include more popular films than the types of films they were acknowledging. The hope was that they could keep nominating the prestige dramas like “The Reader” (2008) but also include more genre films and commercial films that audiences would have seen, like “The Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” (2008). The other hope was that it might improve the ceremony’s ratings to include movies that people have seen and liked (A conversation that continues today).
2009 saw the first year where there were ten nominees for Best Picture since the 1940s, and immediately, it was the most fruitful year to date for Sundance films. It was the first year where two Best Picture nominees premiered at Sundance, with “An Education” (2009) getting three nominations and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” (2009) earning six nominations, winning for Best Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique and Best Adapted Screenplay. A strikingly similar thing happened the following year, with two Best Pictures nominees coming from the Sundance Film Festival. Those two films were “Winter’s Bone” (2010) and “The Kids Are Alright” (2010). Both earned four nominations, one for Best Picture, two in acting, and one for Best Original Screenplay. Also, from Sundance that year, “Blue Valentine” earned Michelle Williams a Best Actress nomination.
So two years following the expansion of Best Picture, Sundance movies were finding way more success than they had previously. Why was that? The easy answer is that there were more Best Picture spots open. They were always 7th, 8th, or 9th in the Best Picture rankings in previous years and could rarely get in. And now that the field was more open than ever before, that meant even the 9th ranked movies could get that coveted Best Picture nomination. But that doesn’t quite explain why they’re also doing better in other categories like Screenplay and acting. Maybe it was the increased visibility of a presumed Best Picture nomination? Perhaps it was a reflection of the changing values of the Academy? Or maybe the rise of the internet allowed smaller movies to have extended campaigns and reach a larger audience than the decades prior. Either way, the 2010s saw a meteoric rise in Sundance nominations, where the consistent one or two nominations turned into five or six, including a Best Picture nomination. Movies like “Whiplash” (2014), “Boyhood” (2014), “Brooklyn” (2015), “Manchester By The Sea” (2016), “Get Out” (2017), and “Call Me By Your Name” (2017) all premiered at Sundance and went on to earn a combined twenty-eight Oscar nominations and eight wins.
After a slight hiatus in 2018 and 2019 where no Sundance films garnered any Oscar nominations in the big eight categories (the Sundance documentaries were still as dominant as they were before accounting for seven of the ten nominations in these years with “American Factory” winning in 2019), the Sundance crowd would come back in full force in 2020.
The 2020s – Sundance’s Biggest Year And Its Uncertain Future
It’s impossible to talk about the 2020 film year without talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. It left an unmistakable impression on the entire year, creating one of the most interesting Oscar nomination lineups of all time. Many of the bigger studio films were pushed to the following year, either because their production or post-production was delayed or because the studios were holding out for a larger audience to increase their box office return on investment. This created an ideal scenario for movies that happened to premiere at Sundance that year just before the pandemic affected everything. Sundance 2020 would be the only full in-person film festival held that year. Once theaters shut down and very few new movies were released, the most notable films from Sundance could carry their buzz through the entire year. The competition was smaller, both in terms of the films’ size and their campaign budgets. With only a budget of $5 million, Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” (2020) would go on to sweep awards season and win Best Picture, along with Best Director and Best Actress for Frances McDormand.
That year, “Minari” (2020), “Promising Young Woman” (2020), “The Father” (2020), and “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2020) all premiered at Sundance (with the latter premiering at the 2021 festival and still being eligible due to the Academy’s timeline extension). They all went on to get nominated for Best Picture. Sundance movies went from two Best Picture nominations over an entire decade to earning four of them in a single year. And yes, that may be an inflated figure because of the expanded Best Picture lineup, but these four movies each earned at least one win in the big eight categories as well. “Minari” won Best Supporting Actress for Youn Yuh-jung, “Promising Young Woman” won Best Original Screenplay, “The Father” won Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins and Best Adapted Screenplay, and “Judas and the Black Messiah” won Best Supporting Actor for Daniel Kaluuya (along with Best Original Song).
So, after Sundance’s banner year in 2020, what does the future hold?
This year, the Sundance movies looking to get Oscar nominations are “CODA,” “Passing,” “Mass,” “Flee,” and “Summer of Soul.” As always, the documentaries are slated to do well with nominations, with “Flee” and “Summer of Soul” both predicted to get nominated in Best Documentary Feature by the Next Best Picture team. “Flee” is also expected to get nominated in Best Animated Feature and Best International Film. Right now, “CODA” is predicted to be the biggest success story from Sundance 2021 with expected nominations in Best Picture, Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur, and Adapted screenplay. It’s on the outside looking in for Best Supporting Actress for Marlee Matlin and Best Original Song, but we wouldn’t rule either of those out yet. Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut, “Passing,” is currently predicted for a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ruth Negga. And Fran Kranz’s searing drama “Mass” is just outside the top five in Best Supporting Actress for Ann Dowd and Best Original Screenplay. It’s looking like it will be another solid outing from Sundance films at this year’s Academy Awards but not as much as it was in 2020. After a crazy year that saw theaters re-open and large studio films make a comeback, it only makes sense to see independent films from Sundance scale back a bit with the Academy. Still, with five films in the awards conversation, the Academy seems far more open to independent films than it was three decades ago.
However, looking at next year’s Oscars, it isn’t easy to see precisely how this year’s Sundance titles will perform come next year’s awards season. Once again, the best chances for films this year lie in the documentary race. Two of the buzziest documentaries coming out of this year’s festival are “Navalny,” the docu-thriller about Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who survived a poisoning attempt on his life, which won the Documentary Audience prize, and the journey of a couple’s lifelong love for volcanoes in National Geographic’s “Fire of Love.” Other documentaries looking to make a splash at next year’s Oscars include the two grand jury prize-winning films, “All That Breathes” and “The Exiles,” as well as Netflix’s “Descendant” and National Geographic’s “The “Territory.”
As for the fiction films, it gets even tougher to see how these films will fare in next year’s awards season. A lot of this year’s buzziest titles, including the Grand Jury prize-winning “Nanny,” as well as major acquisitions such as “Resurrection” and “Fresh” are genre films that the Academy doesn’t typically nominate. The most likely contender from this year’s crop of films is Cooper Raiff’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” the charming film about a recent college grad’s quarter-life crisis and his entanglement with an engaged mother played marvelously by Dakota Johnson. The film is already receiving comparisons to last year’s “CODA,” which makes sense. Both are audience award-winning Sundance films that Apple acquired. And suppose Apple campaigns it similarly as they did with “CODA,” Raiff’s sophomore film could see Oscar nominations next year for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Johnson.
Another film that could be in the Oscar conversation is Kogonada’s “After Yang,” which technically already premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival but still used the Sundance Film Festival its launching point for its 2022 Spring release. The closest comparison for “After Yang” is the Oscar-winning “Ex Machina” (2015), another small sci-fi movie. However, “After Yang” is much smaller than Alex Garland’s film, so while a Best Visual Effects nomination may not be in the cards for Kogonada’s contemplative sci-fi, it could repeat a Best Original Screenplay nomination.
Another film that could be in the awards season conversation come next year is Sony Picture Classics’ “Living,” Oliver Hermanus’ English language adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic “Ikiru.” Bill Nighy stars in the film, and after the praise he received for his performance, he could be in the hunt to earn his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. And competing for the Best International Feature Oscar (assuming their country submits them) are Grand Jury prize-winning “Utama” and the Audience Award-winning film “Girl Picture.” But again, it’s still over a year away until the 95th Academy Awards, and with this year’s Oscars still undecided, it might be too early to start formally predicting. Still, if history has taught us anything, it’s that Sundance will continue to have a place at the Oscars for years to come.
Do you think there are any Sundance Film Festival titles that will be nominated at the 94th Academy Awards? What about next year’s Oscars? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Letterboxd at @rtoole