Jemal Countess/Sundance; Getty Images; E! Illustration
Jemal Countess/Sundance; Getty Images; E! Illustration
What's that you feel? The frigid climate of Park City, Utah suddenly warming with influx of Hollywood stars? The winds of change blowing a brisk mountain air right through the heart of Tinseltown? That's Sundance, baby.
The Film Festival has come to be a pillar of the new year for the film set and everyone who follows. When the now-household name got started (by Robert Redford, lest you forget) as a way to support and inspire independent filmmakers all across the globe and, more importantly, to get their movies made. If you'll allow us to get a little technical for a second, indie movies apply to Sundance in hopes of being seen by the industry's studios and distributors (read: companies that actually put movies in theaters and then market them) and subsequently purchased. Consider it the meat market of independent film.
Today, the festival has taken on a life of its own, and has become a veritable Academy Award factory. You can practically draw a line straight from Park City in January to the Dolby Theatre the following February.
Take this year's award season. Captain Fantastic, Manchester by the Sea and Sing Street were all highly-acclaimed Sundance darlings last January, who stand to deliver big time in tomorrow morning's Oscar nominations. Some of the festival's biggest flicks are what we now know as major Oscar bait. Take last year's Brooklyn. Or Boyhood and Whiplash from the 2014 festival (and the 2015 award season).
Historians will also point out the meteoric rises of the likes of Rabbit Hole, (500) Days of Summer, Garden State or, if you want to really dig back in the archives, now-classics The Usual Suspects and Reservoir Dogs, to name just a few.
And it's not just movies; Sundance has built so many careers over the years. Ryan Coogler, who went on to direct the Oscar-nominated Rocky sequel Creed, first hit the scene with Fruitvale Station. Joseph Gordon-Levitt went from nerdy sitcom star to hunky leading man with his turn in the aforementioned Summer. And Miles Teller buffered his career in Park City not once, not twice, but three times in a row, thanks to Rabbit Hole, then The Spectacular Now and then his big finale, Whiplash.
Nowhere is this metaphor more true than with our dear, beloved Jennifer Lawrence. Year's ago, before she was one of the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, before she was America's favorite late night guest, before she was the face of Christian Dior, Sundance hosted her coming out party.
The year was 2010, the movie was Winter's Bone, and Lawrence was still a plucky girl from Kansas who had dropped out of school to pursue a very big dream. The film, for the many, many who haven't seen it (and no one blames you; not even Jennifer herself), was a family drama set in Appalachia. It followed a 17-year-old trying to track down her father, who has disappeared after putting their house up for bail bond. It's a haunting look at the blood ties and codes of silence in a society most of us will never come close to seeing. Lawrence plays the teenager in the center of it all, to frightening accuracy, down to the accent and, yes, skinning and eating a squirrel. (Pro tip: Do not look this up on Youtube.)
Winter's Bone was arguably the runaway hit of the festival—and by "arguably," we of course mean that it won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film (basically the Best Picture of Sundance) and secured distribution by Roadside Attractions. And J Law, who had yet to be coined with her infamous nickname, started garnering attention for herself. Everyone in Park City wanted a moment with the newest star, and she began popping up in interviews everywhere.
In the year that followed her film festival debut, Jennifer first and foremost enjoyed the success of the flick—most under-the-radar actresses take on projects like Winter's Bone expecting maybe a handful of people to see it, but went on to make a very respectable $6 million. Next up was booking a few little-known movies, X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games. By the time the next award season rolled around she was poised and ready for her gold star—or, more specifically, her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
That's because, for all the industry buzz surrounding Lawrence, she was still a veritable unknown to the rest of society—the movie's wave had yet to make its way from Park City and Hollywood. Everything changed on February 27, 2011. If you'll pardon us the bravado, we'd like to proclaim that it was the moment when J Law became J Law. And, less dramatically, when the world realized that she was born to attend award shows.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Even though Lawrence eventually lost the Best Actress award to Natalie Portman and her terrifyingly awesome Black Swan performance, she put on a fabulous display. She was every bit as charming and kooky and effervescent as she is today. And that, as dramatists like to say, was the beginning of the end. Hollywood, and its love affair with Jen, never looked back.
There were a few factors beyond just her critically-acclaimed Sundance coming-out party at play, of course. She's an incredibly talented actress who made very smart casting decisions; she showed everyone who mattered that not only could she act her butt off in the most uncomfortable of scenarios (that would be out in the middle of the freezing cold Appalachia, with minimal makeup and her teeth painted yellow), but she could also open a box office to huge success.
The risk of fronting huge franchises like Hunger Games or X-Men lies in being typecast; sentenced to a lifetime of being seen as only an action star, with no depth or flexibility or inability to wear spandex in sight. The perfect prescription? Start with the indies. Within the first year of her public career, Lawrence had created herself one very strong chameleon persona. Her frustratingly adorable idiosyncrasies and conversation skills were just icing on the cake, and the rest is Hollywood history.