A Conversation With Thom Powers on the Sundance Film Festival

For most people on the indie film circuit, the Sundance Film Festival marks the start of the new year. Park City is where filmmakers go to earn buzz for their projects, get some press and maybe even ink a distribution deal. On Jan. 30 I spoke with Thom Powers about the documentary films at Sundance that garnered the most chatter and the biggest checks, among other subjects.

[Q&A has been edited for content and clarity]

Rahul Chadha: It seemed like so much of the press attention around Sundance was focused on sales. The Hollywood Reporter said that four docs sold for at least seven figures and I read a report that BLACKFISH elicited a bidding war from four or five distributors. Did you get the sense that sales were better this year, and if so, why do you think that was?

Thom Powers: Some of those figures are slightly inflated. I know at least one of those films that is being reported as a million dollar sale is a little under a million dollars. But the fact remains that there were some very strong doc sales, and notably the emergence of a new player in The Weinstein Company’s RADiUS brand run by Tom Quinn and Jason Janego. Tom previously worked for Magnolia, where he worked on several successful docs such as FOOD INC. and MAN ON WIRE. Months ago RADiUS announced involvement in the new Errol Morris film about Donald Rumsfeld, THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, due out later this year. Tom told me they would be very selective about docs which left me unprepared for their recent buying streak. Their first Sundance acquisition was the opening night title 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, set in the music industry that gives it a solid commercial hook. Then RADiUS acquired INEQUALITY FOR ALL, which struck me as less obvious. But if you imagine it following in the footsteps of AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH you can see the commercial appeal. Then they announced CUTIE AND THE BOXER, which has no celebrity connection and on the surface feels less obviously commercial, although it had strong word of mouth. So it seems RADiUS is trying out a wide range of docs and it’s good for the industry to have a new player in the mix. In addition to their strong showing, there was notable acquisitions by mainstay distributors including Sundance Selects, which bought DIRTY WARS and THE SUMMIT, and Magnolia Pictures, which bought BLACKFISH.

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LINSANITY, directed by Evan Jackson Leong, showing in Sundance's Doc Premieres section.

I asked filmmakers in Sundance’s Documentary Premieres Section to describe what attracted them to their subject and what conversations they hope their film will start. Below are responses from 5 of the 11 films. As I receive others, I’ll update this page. See previous posts on the US Documentary Competition and World Documentary Competition Thanks to Lauren Kraus for helping me compile this survey.

Lucy Walker, The Crash Reel, @lucyjwalker, @thecrashreel

I wanted to make The Crash Reel from the first moment that I met snowboarder Kevin Pearce. Kevin was training for the Olympics and vying with rival Shaun White when he sustained a severe Traumatic Brain Injury, which put him in a coma fighting for his life. No sooner did he learn to walk and talk again, he wanted to snowboard, and here’s where the story gets even more dramatic, because his brain wasn’t telling him how injured he was, and if he hits his head again he’ll die. We want to raise awareness about Traumatic Brain Injury through film and also our campaign #loveyourbrain, and to ask questions about safety and risk in Action Sports, and about head injuries in sports – but it’s a movie first and foremost, all told in compelling, thrilling verite scenes, with a lot of emotion and story and no lectures or experts in sight.
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PUSSY RIOT - A PUNK PRAYER plays in Sundance's World Documentary Competition.

I asked filmmakers in Sundance’s World Documentary Competition to describe what attracted them to their subject and what conversations they hope the film will start. Below are responses from 9 of the 12 films. As I receive others, I’ll update this page. In a future post, we’ll hear from directors in the Doc Premieres section. See the previous post on the US Documentary Competition. Thanks to Erik Spink for helping me compile this survey.

Zhao Qi, Fallen City

I remember feeling the first jolts in my office in Beijing that day on May 12th, 2008. An hour later, we learned there had been an earthquake in Sichuan. When I set foot in the worst-hit city Beichuan 3 days after the earthquake, it was a sea of wreckage before my eyes. No road was flat; no building was standing straight. Smoke and dust mixed with the smell of rotten corpses and disinfectants, wafted in the air.
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WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE? on Tim Hetherington, premiering at Sundance.

Tomorrow the Sundance Film Festival kicks off with over 40 feature documentaries. Here are nine that I’ve seen in various stages of completion and predict will make waves in Park City and beyond.

BLACKFISH (US competition) – What caused an Orca whale to kill its trainer at Sea World? Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite conducts an impressive investigation, demonstrating this wasn’t an isolated incident. If you own stock in an aquatic amusement park, sell now.

THE CRASH REEL (Doc Premieres) – Snow boarding champion Kevin Pearce was favored for Olympic greatness until he had a horrific crash during a practice run in Park City. Two-time Oscar nominee Lucy Walker (Waste Land) follows Pearce in recovery to explore the world of extreme sports and its growing pressures and dangers.

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What Does a Sundance Doc Prize Mean at the Box Office?

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN won the World Audience Prize in 2012.

In the lead-up to Sundance, I got to wondering how its documentary awards correlate to box office success. I looked at winners from the past 10 years in the categories of grand jury prize and audience award for both US and World competitions; and drew theatrical sales data from Box Office Mojo.

My question: how many grossed over $1 million at the box office? 

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