This year, however, Sundance is looking a lot less bipolar.
Reflecting shifts in the independent film world — both in terms of how festivals are programmed and what kinds of movies budding directors are putting forth — Sundance, which begins Thursday in Park City, Utah, will play 14 comedies and comedic dramas in its three most prominent sections. That may not sound like many until you look back at the 2010 Sundance schedule, which featured just five comedic movies in those divisions.
“It’s certainly not the same stream of angst-ridden pictures we’ve seen in the past,” said Steve Beeks, Lionsgate’s chief operating officer.
Predicting which films will pop at this year’s festival is a fool’s game. As Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, said in an interview, “You have to forget all the advance hoo-hah and hoopla and just watch the films.” But even Mr. Redford said he did a double take when he saw how many comedies made the cut. “I was surprised and quite encouraged,” he said.
But three comedies in particular are generating advance buzz. “Don Jon’s Addiction,” about a pornography-obsessed Lothario, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson. “In a World” by Lake Bell tells the story of a woman trying to follow in the professional footsteps of a movie-trailer voice-over star. “Ass Backwards” looks at two lovable-loser women who take a road trip to claim a beauty pageant crown that eluded them as children.
Mr. Redford had a very simple explanation for the shift. “It says something about where we are as a world,” he said. “It’s a dark and cynical time, and humor is a way of dealing with it.”
Ms. Bell agreed. “It comes down to what do I want to see next,” she said. “There is already so much stress and darkness in the world that I just don’t crave that great incest rape drama.”
Sundance programmers, realizing that attendees were starting to roll their eyes at all the doom and gloom, have made a concerted effort in the last couple years to put more comedies in their mix. Rival festivals that show lighter films — notably South by Southwest — have been gaining more cultural cachet, perhaps adding pressure on Sundance to lighten up.
Still, Trevor Groth, Sundance’s director of programming, noted that his team is at the mercy of what gets submitted (some 4,000 features this year). “The quality of comedies that were submitted this time around was better overall,” he said. “To make a film with a few comedic moments is one thing, but to sustain that humor over 90 minutes is extremely difficult.”
Veteran independent film producers and agents point to business factors that make comedy more compelling. Filmmakers have realized that funny stories are both more attractive to financiers and more easily sellable through video-on-demand services; people browsing a list of movies from their sofas are more likely to choose a comedy as an impulse purchase.
“Distributors aren’t looking for the next ‘Sex, Lies, and Videotape,’ ” said Leslye Headland, the director of the comedy “Bachelorette,” which played Sundance last year and was an on-demand hit, taking in more than $5 million. “They’re looking for the next ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ ”
“Sunshine,” a comedic drama that had its premiere at Sundance in 2006, went on to take in more than $100 million at the worldwide box office and receive an Oscar nomination for best picture.
Jill Soloway, a successful television writer (“The United States of Tara”) whose first feature, “Afternoon Delight,” will have its premiere at Sundance on Monday, cited the Internet as an incubator of comedic talent. She said there are “mini bridges being built” to independent film from sites like Funny or Die, where aspiring filmmakers can experiment with comedic shorts.
“Those videos allow you to try your hand at something small and then take the next step,” Ms. Soloway said. “Afternoon Delight,” about a housewife who tries to rescue a stripper, stars Kathryn Hahn (known to TV fans for “Parks and Recreation”), Jane Lynch and Juno Temple.
Other comedies vying for attention here include David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche,” centered on two 1980s-era highway workers, and the Jane Austen-focused “Austenland,” an over-the-top romp from Jerusha Hess, best known as a writer of “Napoleon Dynamite.” “Hell Baby,” starring Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb, is about an expectant couple in need of the Vatican’s elite exorcism team and was directed by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, the team behind “Reno 911!”
There are serious currents running through this year’s festival of course. One prominent theme involves sexuality, especially seen through the eyes of women. Most distributors are eager to see “Two Mothers,” a drama about friends (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright) who start sexual relationships with each other’s sons; if the story doesn’t skew too far to the creepy side, it could be an Oscar vehicle for the actresses. The Sutherland Institute, a conservative Salt Lake City policy group, on Friday made reference to the “Two Mothers” plot and “the amount of sexual promiscuity that Sundance Film Festival regularly brings to Utah” as part of a call for the state to end its financial support for the event.
Almost every movie playing at Sundance — more than 100 features in total — are up for sale. The goal is somehow to follow in the footsteps of “Little Miss Sunshine” or at least “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which became a critical darling at the festival and is now an Oscar contender, racking up ticket sales of more than $11 million in the process.
Which movie could be the “Beasts” of this year’s festival? Longtime attendees point toward “Blue Caprice,” a psychological drama based on the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” a “Bonnie and Clyde”-esque drama about a Texas outlaw and his wife that stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.
“At this point it’s still too early to tell,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics and a festival attendee since the 1980s. “But I can say one thing with certainty: If you want to see what’s happening in the culture, Sundance is still the snapshot.”