Academy member Marcus Hu is the co-founder of Strand Releasing, an independent film distribution company. For A.frame, he shares his reflections on this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival—his 32nd in attendance—and what a whirlwind week of the festival looks like from his sofa. He took in over 24 films total.
These are a few highlights from his jam-packed days.
Opening Night (1/28)
I have my gummy bears, peanut M&Ms, various Japanese treats, mini Chips Ahoy and nuts ready to power me through the week. I try to keep the space organized with notepads, chargers and such to minimize chaos while balancing having to hit pause and take calls, responding to texts and letting the office know what I’m screening.
In speaking with other colleagues, we’re all geared up and ready to go. Sundance has made it pretty easy to get an optimal screening experience, albeit the headaches involved in trying to read all the setup instructions. I scan volumes of emails from sales agents and Sundance’s rights list, which lets distributors know what kinds of rights are available for our territories. All rights? Television only? Theatrical only? I make sure to keep my eye on the trades as they announce sales of films to distributors to prioritize what is essential viewing for acquisitions.
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5:00 p.m. —Start the opening night film, CODA. [Sundance director of programming] Kim Yutani introduces director Sian Heder at the start of the film, as it would have been at the Eccles Theater. This makes the experience feel and look like the real thing, except here I could check my phone and text without getting shhhhhed or scolded. CODA ends up being a fun confection, one that is so sweet and exactly the prototype of a stereotypical Audience Winner there. Seeing Oscar winner Marlee Matlin in a fun supporting role as the mom is a joy.
6:52 p.m. — Eat dinner and text with friends on our thoughts about the day, before watching the Wong Kar-Wai-produced One for the Road (it has all the look and feel, and nostalgia, of a Wong Kar-Wai movie) and the intellectual horror film Censor.
10:53 p.m. — Time for bed and, after watching a triple bill, it feels a lot like being at Sundance.
Day Two (1/29)
After experiencing technical difficulties before my first screening of the day, I tune in to Flee, which I’m looking forward to after seeing the clip and meeting the filmmakers on Monday. It’s the story of a gay Afghan refugee told as a firsthand essay, with animated sequences as he narrates his journey. Really an amazing experience to see this one and I’m happy to hear—as I’m watching it—that it’s sold to Neon. Critical response is amazing. This one is definitely a highlight for me.
Day Three (1/30)
Noon — Sudeep Sharma, previously a programmer for the Academy [and now a Sundance programmer], introduces the documentary Try Harder!, about five students from my high school! For me, this is such a personal and wonderful film. It takes me back to the stress and elation of being there and seeing the rooms and hallways. Last month would have been my 40th reunion, but since it was canceled, this is a good way to celebrate that landmark. I’m thoroughly impressed with how director Debbie Lum captures these very personal moments of five high school students as they embark on their graduation to some wonderful and some heartbreaking results. Really thrilled to stay through the credits and see how many local colleagues I know who have worked on this project.
8:30 p.m. — Following an afternoon with Rebecca Hall’s directorial narrative Passing and the psychological drama/thriller Superior, I decide to drop in on IndieWire editor Eric Kohn’s Sundance condo party. It’s really nice to log on to Zoom and catch up with IndieWire’s Anne Thompson, Cinetic’s Ryan Werner, filmmaker Jenni Olson and Jeff Deutchman of Neon, and others, as we toast and congratulate Kim Yutani on this year’s festival.
Day Four (1/31)
Noon —Take the afternoon off to watch Together Together. It’s already got a distributor, but it’s always good to watch something to clear your mind. The description reads like a light, breezy comedy about a man, Ed Helms, finding a surrogate to carry a baby for him. It’s everything you’d expect.
7:00 p.m. — I have to say, I watch Violation to see if it’s as shocking as I hear it is, and it doesn’t disappoint on that front. During an unexpected moment of graphic sex, I run to my window, which faces a main street, to pull down the shades! I don’t want the police knocking on my door with a complaint of indecency. With graphic sexual and violent content, it’s definitely a companion piece to the more mainstream Promising Young Woman, from last year’s edition, which is seeing a nice life on this year’s awards circuit.
Day Five (2/1)
Wake up from a festival hangover of films. Luckily, the ones I watch today are on a flexible viewing schedule.
Noon: After tuning in to Prime Time, which stars the lead actor from Corpus Christi, I end up balancing conference calls and a quick bite before starting a screening of El Planeta, about a mother and daughter who are broke and grift their way around Gijón, Spain. I spend the rest of the afternoon catching up on the workload built up from being in screenings for the past few days. After dinner, I watch the Alvin Ailey documentary, which has already been acquired. It’s nice to learn more about Ailey’s life and background and see how his artistry has inspired a younger generation.
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Day Six (2/2)
10:00 a.m. — Look at my calendar and prioritize acquisition screenings after speaking with my business partner. Log on to watch First Date, a breezy teenage version of After Hours, where a young man goes through a series of catastrophes after test-driving a broken-down car. Then watch Wild Indian, a strong story with really compelling performances.
5:00 p.m. — My husband joins me to watch the Sundance Awards. Patton Oswalt hosts the proceedings, and we eagerly await to see one of our dear friends, Isaac Julien, present an award in the World Dramatic category. We text him and other friends with a screenshot of our TV. Everyone is sending ❤️ and 😃 around.
Day Seven (2/3)
7:15 a.m. — My alarm sounds, and I get ready for an 8 a.m. Zoom brunch with HBO’s Chris Grunden, Wild Bunch’s Eva Diederix and SK Global’s Winnie Lau to replace the annual Opening Day lunch we usually do in Sundance. It’s 11 a.m. in New York, 5 p.m. in Spain and 11 p.m. in Bangkok, but we’re thrilled to see one another. Just a year before, we were eating burgers at Chris’ hotel dinette, and this year, we’re talking about our families and how we’ve fared through this year. It’s both melancholic and hopeful. We chat about whether we’ll go to Cannes this year, but three out of the four of us have serious doubts. So we agree to do this group call again for Berlin.
At the end of the day, this unique edition of Sundance at Home retained its commitment to and persistence in showcasing some of the best new talent. I took note of the high number of female directors and the diversity in the film selection, which is so heartening to see. From the wide berth of films I screened, the lineup cajoled, provoked, shocked and entertained me. It was way more productive and efficient not having to navigate transportation (always a nightmare at Sundance), wait in long lines and get shut out in the icy cold weather. Do I miss the live experience? Yes! But there are advantages to this version for sure—no slipping or falling in the snow is one good thing!
The fact that it was able to be as cohesive and maintain its look and feel is an amazing feat. While many other festivals have struggled to continue during the pandemic, Sundance navigated it smoothly. And while it was a different experience without the socializing and the events, I found myself keeping the same schedules as I do when I’m there. Colleagues and friends from around the world texted throughout the days and nights, comparing notes and ideas.
We haven’t been defeated by the pandemic, we just learned to adapt. And that’s the true measure of the kind of collegial setting the Sundance community established and fosters.
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FYI, these 2020 Sundance docs were also included in this year's Oscars Shortlist:
Dick Johnson is Dead
The Mole Agent
The Painter and the Thief
The Truffle Hunters
Welcome to Chechnya
The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25th at 8 pm EST. Watch it live on ABC or go to ABC.com and log in with your TV provider.