Amid the Sundance Film Festival’s heady whirl of movie premieres, distribution deal-making, ambush marketing, swag suite gifting and general logjam of star power, fest-sanctioned “special events” can often get lost in the shuffle.
But in an era when Sundance is rapidly metastasizing away from its time-cherished role as Hollywood’s unofficial launching pad for the crème de la crème of indie movie up and comers into a global proving ground for narrative storytelling in all screen styles, the Special Events section has evolved to include some of the fest’s most exciting programming.
This year, the section provides a showcase for longer-form narrative features scheduled to air on television, streaming services, and web video platforms. And according to fest organizers, they’re all efforts that don’t fit into any neat film festival categories but nonetheless manage to embody Sundance’s mission-statement veneration of story craft aimed at audiences outside the art house. “There’s such a wide range of styles that’s in the special events section,” says Sundance’s director of programming Trevor Groth. “It’s representative of the different kinds of artists we want to support in different mediums.”
Starz’s original anthology series The Girlfriend Experience, for one, embarks from a 2009 drama of the same name directed by Steven Soderbergh. It stars Riley Keough (Magic Mike) as a law student turned high-class New York call girl who provides clients a transactional relationship entailing more than sex. “The series is really smart,” says Groth. “It takes the notion of the film and expands it outward in really interesting ways that are really provocative and sexy.” (The first four episodes will premiere at Sundance.)
At the other end of the non-film spectrum, meanwhile, The Skinny (written, directed by, and starring Jessie Kahnweiler) follows a wannabe YouTube star as she attempts to reconcile her romantic, self-image and eating disorder issues. The movie will later stream on the website Refinery29. “Jessie could have made this as an independent film and we would’ve shown it,” Groth says. “But she decided to do it in this six part series. The voice of it is so powerful, strong and funny, it just fits naturally into everything else we’re doing. Jill Soloway is one of the producers. Transparent, we premiered at the festival too.”
Chelsea Handler makes her festival debut premiering Chelsea Does, a four-part Netflix docu-series following the acid-tongued talk show host as she tackles such topics as marriage, racism, new technology, and drugs. Given Handler’s hard-wired lack of political correctness, though, it would be easy to write her off as the most un-Sundance person attending the festival this year.
“Until she opens her mouth. And then she is Sundance,” points out the festival’s director John Cooper. “It’s always personal. But it’s a series where she takes on certain subjects. It’s basically documentaries that she’s made with her point of view and craziness and willingness to go there with people. It’s pretty entertaining.”
Representing the biggest time commitment of Sundance ’16, the festival will present all 7.5 hours of O.J.: Made in America — chronicling the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson — as a one-day event with an intermission for lunch. “ESPN is going to broadcast it over five nights. But it watches like a film,” Groth says. “The filmmaker wanted to talk about it like that too — the series’ arc and how it unfolds. It is cinematic. It’s so smart and well conceived, it’s going to be a great experience for people to watch it like a film.”
The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 21 to 31 in Park City, Utah. Scroll below for a full listing of Special Events.
One-of-a-kind moments highlighting new independent works that add to the unique Festival experience. An evolving section, this year includes episodic work, short films, and live post-screening discussions.
11.22.63 / U.S.A. (Director: Kevin Macdonald, Screenwriter: Bridget Carpenter, Executive Producers: J.J. Abrams, Stephen King, Kevin Macdonald, Bridget Carpenter, Bryan Burk) — On Nov. 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy was killed, and the world changed. What if you could change it back? Take a journey to find out in this genre-busting, epic new nine-hour event series. The Festival will debut the two-hour premiere of the series, followed by an extended Q&A. Cast: James Franco, Sarah Gadon, Daniel Webber, George MacKay, Josh Duhamel, Chris Cooper. World Premiere
Behind the Scenes of Anomalisa / U.S.A. (Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson, Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman) — Michael Stone — husband, father and respected author — is crippled by the mundanity of his life. On a business trip, he checks into the Fregoli Hotel. He’s amazed to discover a possible escape from his desperation in an unassuming woman, who may or may not be the love of his life. The Festival will present a screening of the film followed by a Q&A with the creators. Separately, they will speak on a Festival panel explaining their creative process and how they brought their extraordinary film to life. Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, David Thewlis.
Chelsea Does / U.S.A. (Director: Eddie Schmidt) — This four-part documentary series features Chelsea Handler as she explores topics of personal and universal fascination: marriage, racism, Silicon Valley, and drugs. The Festival will premiere one installment of the series with clips from the other three installments, followed by an extended Q&A with Chelsea Handler, Director Eddie Schmidt, and Executive Producer Morgan Neville. World Premiere
The Girlfriend Experience / U.S.A. (Directors and screenwriters: Lodge Kerrigan, Amy Seimetz, Executive Producers: Steven Soderbergh, Philip Fleishman, Lodge Kerrigan, Amy Seimetz, Gary Marcus, Jeff Cuban) — Law student Christine Reade is introduced to the world of transactional relationships in this original anthology series. Providing “The Girlfriend Experience” (an emotional and sexual relationship offered at a high price) gives Christine a rush of control and intimacy, but she soon finds herself juggling two very different lives. The Festival will premiere four episodes of the series, followed by an extended Q&A. Cast: Riley Keough, Paul Sparks, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Gilbert, Kate Lyn Sheil. World Premiere
The New Yorker Presents / U.S.A. (Executive Producers: Alex Gibney, Kahane Cooperman, Showrunner: Kahane Cooperman) — A groundbreaking new series that brings America’s most award-winning magazine, The New Yorker, to the screen with documentaries, short narrative films, comedy, poetry, animation, and cartoons from the hands of acclaimed filmmakers and artists. The Festival will premiere the first two episodes of the series, followed by an extended Q&A. World Premiere
O.J.: Made in America / U.S.A. (Director: Ezra Edelman) — This is the story of O.J. Simpson, one of the most polarizing people of the twentieth century, and the city in which he lived for much of his life, Los Angeles. The film explores Simpson’s rise and fall, centered around two of America’s greatest fixations—race and celebrity. The Festival will premiere the full 7.5-hour documentary, followed by an extended Q&A. World Premiere
The Skinny / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Jessie Kahnweiler) — Follow feminist and wannabe YouTube star Jessie as she struggles to live, love, and get over her bulimia. The Festival will premiere six 10-minute episodes, followed by an extended Q&A with Kahnweiler. Cast: Jessie Kahnweiler, Illeana Douglas, Spencer Hill, Ryan Pinkston, Megan Ferguson, Sadie Calvano. World Premiere
United Shades of America / U.S.A. (Executive Producers: Jimmy Fox, W. Kamau Bell, Star Price) — Political comedian W. Kamau Bell explores the racial subcultures of America. In this original series premiere, he uses humor to challenge Klansmen looking to rebrand their message. The screening will include an extended Q&A. World Premiere