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Sundance Diary – Day 1: ‘Agnus Dei,’ ‘Sophie and the Rising Sun,’ and ‘Maggie’s Plan’
Sony Pictures Classics
Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke in 'Maggie's Plan'

Hello from Park City, Utah! I’m here for the Sundance Film Festival, and all week I’ll be writing daily updates mixed with some reviews and other commentary. I’m also working on a bigger feature you’ll find in Christianity Today’s print issue later this year (subscribe today!) on ways Christians are present at mainstream film festivals like Sundance, Berlinale, and True/False. I can’t wait for you to read that.

But I know most people don’t get to go to festivals, and even fewer people go as critics. So in addition to writing small summaries of the films I see this week, I’ll try to share some fun tidbits that are old hat to those of us with press badges, but that we forget are fun to hear about. (If you have a question, Tweet at me—I’m @alissamarie—and I’ll try to answer it!)

Technically, today—Friday—was the second day of the festival. But due to some slow travel, I didn’t make it to Park City in time to pick up my press credentials on Thursday night. So instead I did some grocery shopping, had dinner with a friend, and then came back to my condo and watched some screeners.

What’s a screener? Glad you asked.

Notes On Screeners

Critics typically get invited to press screenings of movies throughout the year; that’s how we see things and write about them before they get to theaters. In my hometown of New York City, major films screen for most critics at the multiplex a few days before they hit the general public. Smaller or more obscure films usually screen several times over a few weeks in small theaters the general public never knows about, scattered throughout the city. (My favorite is Sony’s screening room, which includes leather couches in the back of the room.)

But sometimes you can’t make it to a screening, especially if you, like me and many others, have a “day job” to pay the bills. So sometimes you can ask for a screener—especially if the film is small, or if they’re eager for your outlet to consider covering it. I’ve been at this about a decade; when I started, most publicists would send a DVD, but nowadays you’re more likely to get a link, usually watermarked and only available for a finite number of days.

(Digital screeners are the bane of critics’ existence, by the way. They tend to die halfway through the film. I once had to watch a screener in five-minute increments as it reloaded over and over again. If you’re a filmmaker and you’re reading this, please, if you want to garner favor with press, use Vimeo for your screeners.)

At Sundance, accredited press and industry people have access to a different set of screenings than the general public, though we can also request tickets to some public screenings. But it’s quite literally impossible to see everything in the festival; often four or more films will be screening at the same time, or maybe you’re interviewing a filmmaker during an important slot, or you just can’t physically watch more than four movies in a day.

'Agnus Dei'
Anna Wloch

'Agnus Dei'

Agnus Dei (or, Hold That Thought)

Luckily, I’ve found, most publicists are very helpful on this point. And so, when I realized I needed to see Anne Fontaine's Agnus Deibefore I interviewed her in a few days, and that I had conflicts for all the press screenings, the publicist helped me out.

I watched Agnus Dei this morning, making it my first film of the festival, which I viewed while perched on my couch in comfy pants, drinking coffee. Even before I read the synopsis, I knew from the name ("Lamb of God") that I needed to see the film.

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