At its inception 30 years ago, the Sundance Film Festival was dedicated to low-budget films made outside the studio system, a celebration of fresh cinematic voices telling daring, imaginative stories. Back then Hollywood stars barely factored into the equation.
It's this legacy that makes the lineup for this January's festival all the more startling: A-list actors will be as deep in Park City, Utah, as the mountain resort's snow.
The shift is a consequence of the tilt of studio slates — where adult dramas have been routed by comic-book adaptations, sequels and remakes — and the economics of independent film financing, where having recognizable performers is often the only way to attract funding.
Although recent Sundance schedules have been populated with numerous familiar actors, the 2014 schedule — particularly in the festival's dramatic competition category, which historically has been the least starry of Sundance's groupings — is bursting with glittery talent, including Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Aaron Paul, Glenn Close and Mark Ruffalo.
The 16 U.S. dramatic competition films will be shown during the festival's run from Jan. 16-26. More than 4,000 feature-length works were submitted for consideration in all of Sundance's programming categories, which include documentaries and world cinema. In all, 117 feature-length films will be screened, covering 37 countries and 54 first-time filmmakers.
For prominent actors, there's a powerful appeal to starring in a Sundance movie. Highbrow filmmaking is more exception than rule at the big studios, and Sundance films are often bursting with well-written lead roles. Independent films also have come to dominate Hollywood's major awards, and some of the likely contenders for this year's Oscars — "12 Years a Slave," "Dallas Buyers Club," "All Is Lost," "Philomena" — were not produced by Hollywood studios.
The benefits for the filmmakers can be even more profound. Casting well-known actors gives directors a significant leg up in the chase for cash, where thousands of would-be movies pursue a much smaller number of beneficent patrons. With famous names in starring roles, the investors can hold a much stronger hand when they are selling their film to domestic and international distributors.
"Money is always the most difficult part of what we do as filmmakers," said Kat Candler, the writer-director of the Sundance-selected feature "Hellion."
Candler was able to land "Breaking Bad's" Emmy-winning Aaron Paul as the star of her drama about young renegades when she was still searching for financing. With Paul on board, the money started pouring in.
"People were genuinely excited about him as an actor and what he was doing next," Candler said.
When Alex Ross Perry was casting his film, "Listen Up Philip," a look at how fame affects a young writer that is playing in Sundance's lower-budgeted Next section, he and his producers drew up a fantasy list of possible actors to play the film's novelist. Jason Schwartzman was high on their roster, and the "Rushmore" star, soon after reading the script, said he was in.
"I had never made a movie that wasn't cast with five of my friends," Perry said. "Getting Jason was a dream come true — and everything else that came after it was easy." With Schwartzman enlisted, Perry said, other actors could picture the movie more clearly — the cast includes "Mad Men's" Elisabeth Moss — and the film's original producer doubled his investment. "It couldn't have been easier or smoother," Perry said.
The challenge for filmmakers is to not let the financing concerns rule casting decisions.
As "Mad Men" veteran John Slattery was putting together his cast for "God's Pocket," a Sundance drama adapted from the Pete Dexter novel that represents the actor's feature directorial debut, financiers showed him directories of actors with their monetary values for sales deals around the globe.
"It's really depressing," Slattery said. "You look at these lists, and they say, 'If you cast this person, you can get this much money.'" Slattery, who also co-wrote the "God's Pocket" script, was able to set aside such computations and select the actors he wanted, including Hoffman in the lead role and his "Mad Men" co-star Christina Hendricks, along with Richard Jenkins and John Turturro, in prominent supporting parts.
"I really was able to cast who I wanted," Slattery said.
Sometimes, landing a familiar face can be as much the result of happenstance as careful plotting.
About 10 years ago, Jeff Baena wrote his script "Life After Beth," a zombie romance. The film was never made, and Baena lost all hope. "It was just dead to me," the writer-director said.
About a year ago, though, the filmmaker's girlfriend, "Parks and Recreation" alumna Aubrey Plaza, was meeting with her talent agents, failing to find anything of interest. One agent at last mentioned Baena's script, which she promptly read and loved. "Life After Beth" suddenly had its star and was viable.
"There were no plans to make the movie," Baena said. "And people who see it think I wrote it for Aubrey, but I wrote it seven years before we even met. Now, I think she's pretty much the only actress who was perfect for the role."
Filmmaker Kate Barker-Froyland had met Hathaway when she was assisting the director of "The Devil Wears Prada," which co-starred Hathaway. About two years ago, Barker-Froyland sent Hathaway and her husband, Adam Shulman, her script for "Song One," hoping the couple might help produce the story of a woman who befriends her ailing brother's favorite musician.
Hathaway and Shulman not only said they were happy to produce, but also that the "Les Misérables" Oscar winner wanted to star.
"I hadn't thought of it, actually," said Barker-Froyland, who makes her feature directorial debut with "Song One." "I was surprised when she connected so much to the material."
Despite the numerical evidence to the contrary, the Sundance programmers say they do not intentionally pick movies with top stars. What's more, they say they reject many films with big-name casts.
"We could put together some great red carpets," said John Cooper, the festival's director, "with all of the movies that didn't get in."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun