Sundance, the film festival, boasts a sterling reputation for breaking the careers of such industry icons as Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, and the Coen brothers. Sundance, the television channel, boasts a programming lineup padded with cheap talking-head shows (Celebrity Legacies, Unscripted, Celebrity Damage Control) and precious few, well, films.
A random glance at the Canadian network's schedule for Sunday March 26, for instance, yielded a three-and-a-half-hour informercial block, and then airings of the 2001 Bruce Willis comedy Bandits, the vaguely familiar 2005 Gillian Anderson drama The Mighty Celt, the completely unfamiliar 2009 British comedy Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee, the 2010 drama The Taqwacores, and Bryan Singer's classic The Usual Suspects. Only the latter two films actually enjoyed runs at Robert Redford's famed Park City, Utah, fest – the rest would take some puzzling out as to how exactly they fit into the Sundance brand, or at least the brand that's operated in Canada by Corus Entertainment.
It's a curious disconnect for independent film fans that Sundance Now just might rectify. The streaming service, which launched in the U.S. in 2014, is finally making its way north of the border, officially becoming available to Canadian subscribers as of March 23. Like its (infinitely larger) competitor Netflix, Sundance Now offers an ad-free catalogue that can be accessed online, through mobile iOS and Android apps, or via Chromecast, Apple TV, and Roku, for a monthly fee (which ends up being a few dollars less than Netflix Canada, depending on your account preferences).
Boasting buzzy new art-house films (Always Shine, Uncle Kent 2, Off the Rails), indie-cinema touchstones synonymous with the Utah festival (Living in Oblivion, Hoop Dreams, Daddy Longlegs), and hard-to-find Canadian titles (Coast Modern, Anvil), the streamer aims not only to salvage Sundance's small-screen brand, but offer an alternative to the behemoth that is Netflix, which counts more than five million Canadian subscribers. (It's also competing, to a lesser extent, with CraveTV, Amazon Prime Video, and the horror-centric Shudder.)
"We put a special attention to art-house film, indie cinema, and cover a lot of ground that might not necessarily be getting the same kind of attention that blockbusters are getting elsewhere," says George Schmalz, Sundance Now's curator, in an interview last week. "We think there's an audience for these films, and as much as film and TV is exploding in terms of availability, a lot of time these small films fall by the wayside. We think there's an opportunity to being a new voice, it's where we can stand out."
But the Canadian market is not exactly a forgiving one, and audiences have already been burned by the loss of Rogers' Shomi – not to mention still being denied access to such U.S. streaming services as Hulu, YouTube TV, Sling TV, and HBO Go. A shiny launch complete with a bevy of intriguing titles carries the promise of change, but Sundance Now still has a tough fight ahead of itself – both in terms of ensuring it's not another Sundance Channel-like disappointment, and that it's worth the extra money you're likely already spending on Netflix (which has recently been doubling down on its own indie cinema content).
To that end, Schmalz believes there is still a gap for Sundance Now to fill, and points to not only its programming, but its guest curators, who have a direct line to Park City: directors Mark and Jay Duplass, actress Jenny Slate, documentarian Alex Gibney, and, for the Canadian launch, filmmaker Bruce McDonald.
"We're reaching out to filmmakers, actors, actresses and asking them to pick out a favourite film, and we'll go after it – but we're also listening to audiences, too" says Schmalz, who's previously worked in film distribution with Oscilloscope Laboratories and Kickstarter. "I mean, we can't get everything – somebody made a joke the other day about the [unreleased] Jerry Lewis movie The Day the Clown Cried, and I was like, um, not going to happen. But we do work with everyone to see what we can get to subscribers. … We dig in and do the research. It can be like going down a breadcrumb trail."
Hopefully it will be a trail that leads to more of the daring, previously inaccessible indie cinema that Sundance, the festival, is known for – and fewer forgotten Bruce Willis comedies.