Sundance 2023: Making the Utah production stage ready for film: State’s cinematic industry made big strides in 2022

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EDITOR’S NOTE:  Part I is an overview of the Utah film industry in the current moment. Part II (tomorrow) will offer a summary preview of the Sundance 2023 feature-length and short films, which The Utah Review will cover.

Like nearly 2,400 of their peers who are listed in a directory of Utah film industry professionals, Austin Everett and Jake Van Wagoner met each other while working on the pilot for Nickelodeon’s Pupsicles, which did not air after it was completed. But, that networking moment led to a chain of serendipitous events, which will culminate in a world premiere of their film Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Kinda Feel Left Out at Sundance this year. 

Van Wagoner directed and Everett wrote the screenplay for the film, inspired in part by their love of some of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980s and the 1990s such as E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. The duo had worked as PAs on the Nickelodeon show and then two years later met again for a Hallmark Channel production, with Everett as production coordinator and Van Wagoner as line producer. “Two years ago, Jake called me and asked if we wanted to make a film together and wanted to see if I had any ideas,” Everett says, in an interview with The Utah Review. “A month later, I pitched to him the title of the film and Jake said, “let’s do it.’” From there, the project hummed along about as perfectly as any feature-length debut project could. “Austin and I get each other, which really worked for realizing the vision of this story,” Van Wagoner explains, adding that he had understood that screenwriters and directors do not always see eye to eye when it comes to visualizing the final edit.

(L-R) Writer Austin Everett and Director Jake Van Wagoner on the set of the sci-fi/comedy, ALIENS ABDUCTED MY PARENTS AND NOW I FEEL KINDA LEFT OUT, a Jespers Comet Films, LLC release. Photo courtesy of Photographer Steve Olpin and Jespers Comet Films, LLC.

For Everett and Van Wagoner, that wave of serendipity carried through when another production team decided to table its project in Utah, opening up a space for their film to take advantage of the film tax credit as an incentive for making their film in state.

Virginia Pearce, head of the Utah Film Commission, says the story of Everett and Van Wagoner exemplifies just how strongly bonded the professional Utah film community has become. Likewise, Derek Mellus, the film commission’s production manager, says that it might be easy to think that “everyone works in their own silos but until you end up mixing different crews then you realize just how big the film community is becoming in Utah.”

GERALYN DREYFOUS

Sundance always has been a major force in the Utah ecosystem of film. Geralyn Dreyfous, one of the founders of the Utah Film Center and executive producer and cofounder of Impact Partners and Gamechanger Films, says she is thrilled about the film festival returning to in-person screenings and events for the first time since 2020. This year’s festival (Jan. 19-29) will have venues in Park City, Salt Lake City and the Sundance Mountain Resort and all of the categories with competition slates will become available for online viewing during the second half of the festival.

“It has been hard on Sundance as an institution,” she explains, when asked about the move to virtual programming the ,sat two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, organizers had planned for a hybrid gathering of in-person and online screenings. They had planned to operate at 60% of the festival’s usual capacity, as compared to 2020 but then, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations had resurged, Sundance organizers decided to move everything online. The in-person networking is critical for Sundance, where decisions for purchasing premiered films for wider release and distribution are inked and sealed. “it is really important for buyers to come but also for Utah as the destination for marketing the festival and for keeping the ecosystem of Sundance thriving,” Dreyfous adds. 

A still from It’s Only Life After All by Alexandria Bombach, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jeremy Cowart

She adds that she is just as thrilled by the representation of feature filmmakers making their directorial debuts at Sundance this year. More than one out of every four directors are making their debuts. This year’s festival brought a record 15,855 submissions, including 4,061 feature-length films. Just 101 were selected for the slate. 

“This is at the heart which has made Sundance great where careers are launched and it is always exciting to see a new filmmaker in Park City,” Dreyfous adds. For example, she is pleased to see new vistas of cultural heritage and expression at the festival. This year’s slate includes three films from the Iranian diaspora with stories that go well beyond the usual political discussions about Iran and the Islamic Public’s record on human rights and nuclear disarmament: The Persian Version, directed by Maryam Keshavarz; Joonam, directed by Sierra Urich and Shayda, directed by Noora Niasari. 

In particular, thanks in part to the aggressive market push by companies in the streaming video-on-demand industry to showcase fresh content, documentaries have performed very well recently. For instance, the recent docuseries about Prince Harry and Meghan was Netflix’s most watched documentary debut. There were more than 81.5 million viewing hours in the first week of its release and was the most watched program on Netlfix in 85 countries. 

A still from Going Varsity in Mariachi by Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo Credit: Osmosis Films.

From this year’s Sundance slate, Dreyfous has two documentaries as producer, which are financed by Impact Partners: Geralyn is executive producer of It’s Only Life After All, a comprehensive look at the Indigo Girls, including a extensive archive of home movies, and Going Varsity in Mariachi, about a south Texas high school preparing to compete as state champion in mariachi.

But, Dreyfous also is thrilled to see another of her documentary projects, which won the U.S. Documentary Audience and Festival Favorite Awards at last year’s Sundance, return to Park City. Navalny, directed by Daniel Roher, about the anti-authoritarian Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny, will have its first in-person screening at Sundance (Jan. 26, The Ray Theatre, Park City, 5:30 p.m.). Navalny survived an assassination plot, which was an attempted poisoning. He is currently in a punishment cell at a maximum-security prison outside Moscow.

In addition to other awards, the film, which Warner Bros. Pictures acquired, has been nominated for other high-profile honors including the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America. Most notably, the documentary has been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination. 

A still from Navalny by Daniel Roher, an official selection of the Special Screenings program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The film’s reverberating impact has been enhanced in the year since its premiere, even with the ongoing war in Ukraine that Russia launched last February. Unquestionably, as the war has dragged on despite predictions that it would be a swift conflict, Vladimir Putin faces intensified political pressure and his future as leader is becoming more uncertain the longer the war is prosecuted. From prison, Navalny has continued to vocalize his opposition to the war. Late last month, Christo Grozev, the investigative journalist featured in the documentary, was put on Russia’s “wanted” list. In a post on Twitter, Grozev wrote, “A general comment: I have no idea on what grounds the Kremlin has put me on its ‘wanted list’, thus I cannot provide any comments at this time. In a way it doesn’t matter – for years they’ve made it clear they are scared of our work and would stop at nothing to make it go away.” 

Last week, the German government demanded that Putin authorize medical treatment for Navalny, who reported that he had flu symptoms including a fever. The Putin government has persistently denied him access to any essential medications. More than 200 Russian doctors also signed a letter demanding Putin follow through on giving Navalny access to treatment. 

“He is in a 5×9 cell in solitary confinement and no doubt they are trying to break him psychologically,” Dreyfous says, adding that she stays in close contact with Navalny’s immediate family members and associates. 

A still from Joonam by Sierra Urich, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Undoubtedly, while Navalny is at its core a story of human rights and the resilience of a political activist, Dreyfous says that Russians are especially angry and fed up with the entrenched corruption of Putin and his fellow oligarchs. The Navalny message which resonates the most with Russian citizens is the exposure of unchecked corruption, which has compromised the country’s economic welfare. “When Russians see photos of yachts and the oligarchs enjoying themselves, they are infuriated. They want to tell their leaders, ‘You took that money out of my pockets.’”

UTAH’S FILM INCUBATORS 

As part of the ecosystem, the Utah incubators for producing expertise and talent in the film industry are notable. The film degree programs at major universities including the University of Utah, Brigham Young University (BYU) and Utah Valley University are flourishing, along with Salt Lake Community College. BYUtv has expanded its productions of original series and documentaries. Spy Hop just marked the 20th anniversary of PitchNic, its signature film student program. Many of Spy Hop’s film student alumni also have advanced into the Phase 2 production arm of the nationally recognized nonprofit organization. Nearly 95 percent of the PitchNic films have thrived in film festivals and have garnered numerous awards over the years. 

The Davey Foundation (created in memory of actor, director, producer, musician and community activist David Fetzer) also has become a major player in local independent filmmaking, not only providing financial support but also organizing the annual Davey Fest to screen films. Among those films is the short I Have No Tears, and I Must Cry by director Luis Fernando Puente. His narrative short, which is based on the experiences of his wife’s interview for a green card and the limbo many immigrants contend with when it comes to the bureaucracy of securing their documents, is among just 64 selected by Sundance for this year’s short film program. 

The acceptance rate for short films was just one-half of one percent of all submissions from around the world. In an interview with The Utah Review, Puente says, when he was a student at BYU, he was introduced to the world of Sundance. He received passes for festival screenings and had worked with Robert Machoian, a photography faculty member at the school whose feature-length film The Killing of Two Lovers, also filmed in Utah and received its premiere at Sundance in 2020. Puente also began to collaborate with Oscar Ignacio Jiménez, one of the state’s most sought after cinematographers and directors of photography for film. Jiménez, who worked with Machoian on his Sundance feature, is cinematographer for Puente’s latest short film.

Puente’s most formative interaction with Sundance occurred when he was recruited to translate for a Spanish-speaking director who participated in one of the Sundance Institute’s writing labs. “It gave me the opportunity to see first hand how directors and writers were getting and giving feedback about their work. And, I was able to reach out to people I previously thought that I might not never have the chance to meet.” 

Two years ago, Puente’s short film The Moon and the Hummingbird won the Fear No Filmmaker Award at the Utah Arts Festival’s Fear No Film Program, an internationally juried short film slate which the Utah Film Commission’s Derek Mellus curated. Puente adds that he plans to expand his Sundance short into a feature-length film.

Luis Fernando Puente

CONTINUING TO SET THE STAGE: UTAH FILM COMMISSION EXPANDS INCENTIVES

A significant development in Utah’s film industry in the past year was expanding the film tax credit to Utah rural communities, which the state legislature approved. Thus, these areas are now formally acknowledged as ideal locations for productions, emphasizing that producers and directors have options beyond the usual options of Salt Lake City and Park City for location shooting. The Utah Film Commission designated 19 Film Ready Utah communities for supporting productions in their area with access to locations, professional crews and vendors. While communities such as Kanab, Moab, Ogden and those in the Utah Valley region already were well known, the commission designated a dozen other counties in the state as conducive to film and television producers and directors:  Box Elder, Cache, Carbon, Davis, Emery, Garfield, Heber Valley, Juab, San Juan, Tooele, Uintah, Washington and Wayne.

Acknowledging how the halo effect of Sundance’s long-standing benefits can have positive impacts outside of the state’s most heavily populated Wasatch Front, Pearce says the capabilities are now available to give rural communities resources that match local businesses and unique locations with production-related needs.

It underscores how Utah’s film industry continues to tone and condition its muscles in a fast growing state that performs well above per capita expectations, with a population of more than 3.4 million. Currently, the commission’s directory lists nearly 2,400 individuals in Utah who are available and qualified to work on any scale for a professionally filmed production. In the last decade, Utah’s Motion Picture Incentive Program has generated more than $463 million in economic impact and has generated more than 34,600 production jobs across the state.  

As the intense competition among companies in the streaming platform market has propelled a bounty of films and episodic series, Utah has benefited from the attention. This past year, productions in progress which became eligible for tax credits and film commission incentives have been or will be distributed on many of the streaming market’s heavy hitters including Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, FX/Hulu, Nickelodeon and Paramount+. This includes a new limited series directed by Yellowstone’s Taylor Sheridan, which will be distributed by Paramount+ and has an estimated Utah spend of $40 million. One of the biggest productions will be the forthcoming theatrical release of a period Western film by Kevin Costner, Horizon: An American Saga, with an estimated Utah spend of nearly $54 million and with location shoots in the counties of Emery, Grand, Kane, San Juan and Washington. And, the familiar Hess name has popped up again, in a new theatrical feature production Joy to The World by Jerusha Hess, co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite. That film is slated to bring an estimated spend of $8.3 million in the state.

In 2022, more than 30 productions which were filmed and completed in Utah were released either in theater as feature films, on cable television channels or on streaming platforms including Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+ and Roku, among others. Theatrical feature releases included The Nameless Days (a narrative feature directed by Matthew Whedon and Andrew Mecham set along the U.S.-Mexico border about two siblings who are immigrants and encounter an ancient Aztec demonic spirit), The Chosen: Season 3 (part of a faith and inspirational series produced by BYUtv), Christmas with the Campbells (a holiday rom-com directed by Clare Niederpruem and released simultaneously on AMC+), American Murderer ( a true-crime drama by Matthew Gentile in his directorial debut), Summering (which premiered at Sundance last year) and Rite of the Shaman, a well-received fiction film directed by Alicia Oberle Farmer, which focuses on a young man grieving the loss of his grandfather who decides to follow in his footsteps as a shaman. Sick and What Comes Around (formerly titled Roost) Roost saw premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival. What Comes Around is a thriller drama produced and directed by Amy Redford, the daughter of actor and director Robert Redford, who founded Sundance. Released this month on Peacock, Sick, directed by John Hyams and written by Kevin Williamson and Katelyn Crabb, is a slasher film set in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic expanded.

There also were releases for Discovery Channel, History Channel, PBS Independent Lens series, Food Network, Great American Family and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. And, Christmas films for Hallmark Channel and Netflix have proven not only popular among viewers but also have injected a strong dose of economic returns for the state’s film industry.  

Plan C, directed by Tracy Droz Tragos. A Dinky Pictures Production in association With XTR, Lismore Road Productions

UTAH FILM CENTER’S FISCAL SPONSORSHIP

The Utah Film Center also celebrated its 20th anniversary this past year and its fiscal sponsorship program continues to proliferate with new titles and successes. One of those films making its world premiere at Sundance 2023 is Plan-C, directed by Tracy Droz Tragos. The documentary highlights Francine Coeytaux, a public health specialist and the co-founder of the grassroots organization Plan C, which was established to spread knowledge of and access to the abortion pill across the U.S. The film broadens the perspective with themes not only about the right to an abortion and women’s health but also about broader rights of expression and the agile, proactive approach Plan C has taken to build pipelines for their work while dealing with criticism, political setbacks and the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

Once again, Utah Film Center’s fiscal sponsorship program has proven its concept especially for filmmakers who are not just looking to submit their films to Sundance but to give them life extending to national and international film festival circuits as well as distribution in theatrical channels and broadcast and streaming platforms. Once a project is accepted into the program, the film can take advantage of the film center’s role as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, making it easier for donors to contribute directly to the project of their choice. It has become a win-win model for all stakeholders, including donors who contribute to specific center’s fiscal sponsorship initiatives. In the last decade, 45 fiscally sponsored films premiered at Sundance and at least 27 have amassed one or more major honors not only at Sundance but also at other film festivals and in the international film industry.

Since the program started in 2008, Mariah Mellus, the center’s executive director, says it has amplified Sundance’s halo effect. “On so many levels, the festival has done wonders for aspiring filmmakers as well as enriching the sensibilities of Utah film watchers,” she adds. The program has fortified the gateway for documentaries moving into the mainstream and for encouraging many new filmmakers, especially those who historically have been underrepresented in the cinematic community. Some 35% of the projects are represented by female, queer and BIPOC filmmakers. The center’s film screenings now spread to locations throughout the entire state. Among the forthcoming films supported through the fiscal sponsorship program is The Right to Read, a documentary by Jenny Mackenzie with LeVar Burton as executive producer, which focuses on improving literacy in the early childhood years.  

Likewise, Mellus says the ties have strengthened not just with prominent film institutions and organizations such as Spy Hop, The Davey Foundation and the Utah Film Commission but also with many community and grassroots organizations engaged in the issues and causes that are the subjects of films which have received fiscal sponsorship from the center. This has led to recent developments such as the Black, Bold and Brilliant Series. The center also has two signature film festivals: Damn These Heels featuring an internationally curated slate of films for the queer community and Tumbleweeds for kids. Both festivals encourage aspiring Utah filmmakers as well to participate. 

Actors Aaron Kramer and Sarah McLoney in The Whole Lot (2022), directed by Connor Rickman and written by Matthew Ivan Bennett. Overcranked Pictures.

Donations are completely tax-deductible, and filmmakers receive 94 percent of the donations, as the center only uses six percent of each donation to cover administrative expenses. And, every film that receives fiscal sponsorship is eventually presented at one of the many free, public screenings the center offers every year. There have been well more than 300 films that have received a center fiscal sponsorship.

OTHER NOTABLE RECENT UTAH FILM HIGHLIGHTS

Other notable highlights in Utah film from the last year included The Whole Lot, a wholly Utah-made independent feature length film. The Overcranked Productions film, directed by Connor Rickman and written by Matthew Ivan Bennett, premiered at the 2022 Philadelphia Independent Film Festival.

The family drama has attracted a good amount of attention since its premiere. It also has been an official selection at the Mumbai IndieFilm Festival, Kansas City Underground Film Festival, Independent-Star FilmFest, Mesa International Film Festival and Erie International Film Festival. Awards have included Best of Drama at Philadelphia Independent Film Festival, Outstanding Acting Award (for Sarah McLoney) at Kansas City Underground Film Festival and Narrative Silver Award at Independent-Star FilmFest.

The Atomic Spawn, directed by Arthur Veenema.

Directing a self-financed project, which was augmented by a Next Level Grant from the Utah Film Commission, Rickman achieved remarkable impact on a $15,000 budget. He recruited Bennett, one of Utah’s top playwrights who demonstrates handily his finesse in the screenwriting genre. The film was shot in five days on location in the Snyderville Basin in Utah’s Summit County. In a director’s statement, Rickman emphasized the appeal of working as an independent filmmaker in Utah:

The Whole Lot was born from a need to create without permissions imposed by external gatekeepers. Having tried and failed so many times to fund other scripts through traditional means, I decided instead to focus on the possible.” He adds, they “adhered to … strict limits to the script and production philosophy: one location, minimal characters, a story unfolding in real-time, long takes relying heavily on the actors’ timing and a script written to enable their success.”

Arthur Veenema, another Next Level Grant from the Utah Film Commission, directed the short The Atomic Spawn. The grant was the stepping stone Veenema needed to secure financing for post-production work. For the stop-motion creature, he recruited Utah artist Patrick Charles whose space at the Poor Yorick Studios in South Salt Lake featured monster-like sculptures. Veenema also was able to tap Jake Proctor and Strawberry Sound for handling foley sound design and sound mixing. 

Sedimented Here. Directed by Rachel Barker.

Adding its own touch to the film commission’s thematic mission embedded in The Story is Utah and Continuing to Set The Stage messages was the 2022 premiere of Sedimented Here, directed by choreographer Rachel Barker. Dance films (screendance) have become a well developed genre in short films, particularly as video art and documentary. There are film festivals dedicated to this genre. Likewise, dance films also have been curated for various festival slates, including the Fear No Film program at the Utah Arts Festival. Some are treated as installations in exhibitions at museum galleries, including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Just seven minutes long, Rachel Barker’s Sedimented Here stands out for melding two of Utah’s most substantial strengths in creative expression – dance and documentary filmmaking. Barker’s cinematic statement, filmed in Moab, synthesizes the visceral athleticism of dance with the pristine beauty of the otherworldly red rock landscape that tempts and lures many to Utah. But, something even more consequential emerges from the film for anyone who visits, absorbs and engages with this extraordinary desert landscape. Our place and presence should not compromise nor diminish the dignity and integrity of this natural wonder.

Also filmed in Utah, Emily Kaye Allen’s documentary Cisco Kid will receive its U.S. premiere at Slamdance (Jan. 20-29 in Salt Lake City and Park City). The film is another in a line of numerous creative projects that deepen the historical underpinnings of the American West. The subject is Eileen, a queer maverick who forges a life from the memories and remnants of Cisco, a ghost town in the Utah desert. 

Copper Common. Photo courtesy of Visit Salt Lake.

VISIT SALT LAKE

With Sundance returning to in-person events, Visit Salt Lake also will revive the popular Sundance lounges in downtown Salt Lake City Jan. 20-29. Two lounges are planned, featuring live music, performances, filmmaker appearances and discussions. As The Megaplex Theatres at The Gateway is a new Sundance venue, one of the festival lounges will be at the nearby HallPass. Copper Common, located just around the corner from the Broadway Theatre, also a Sundance venue, returns as a lounge ( Copper Common is a bar and patrons must be 21+ and present valid ID.

In addition to the Megaplex Theatres and the Salt Lake Film Society’s Broadway Centre Cinemas, the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts and the Grand Theatre at the Salt Lake Community College campus will be SLC screening venues. 

There is no entrance fee and it’s open to the public, but seating is limited. “With the growth in Salt Lake’s role in Sundance, it’s critical to continually enhance the Festival experience, be it before or after a film screening at one of the Lounges or simply relaxing and enjoying some excellent local music in a casual setting,” Michael Mack, director of travel trade & strategic partnerships for Visit Salt Lake, wrote. “It’s been exciting to see the growth and success of Sundance here in Salt Lake, and I believe the urban experience offers something completely different, yet complementary, to that of the Park City scene.”

For more information, see the Visit Salt Lake page about the Sundance lounges

For complete details about Sundance films and tickets, see the festival website.

Follow The Utah Review daily for reviews and interviews on films through the festival, which ends on Jan. 29.

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