Whiplash's Sundance Opening Was 'Very' Worrying For Damien Chazelle

As we are in the middle of — or really the tail end of — the fall festival season, we tend to talk about these festivals as showcases for the big awards hopefuls of the year. The slates are packed with studio movies from major, established filmmakers, looking to have an impactful premiere that will launch them into the race for the gold. Film festivals become a space to see things you were already anticipating early. But treating festivals like this does a major disservice to what they were designed for: discovery. The objective of a film festival should be finding new, exciting talent and giving them a platform to show their art. Only one festival really abides by this, and that's Sundance.

Yes, Sundance is home to plenty of auteur-driven, star-filled pictures, but the main reason that festival has remained Mecca for independent filmmakers is to get their films in front of distributors who will potentially buy them. The stories that come out of these fall festivals are "This Movie Received a 12-Minute Standing Ovation" or "Will This Actor Be Nominated?" For Sundance, the big headlines that come out are still "This Studio Bought That Movie for So Much Money."

However, not every film that Sundance accepts is treated the same. You live and die by the schedule. Depending on what day, time, or theater your film is showing, you may not get the eyes you need — be it distributors or critics — to see your movie. I've covered Sundance twice in the past and know how difficult it is to build your own schedule. Someone who understands this too is Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle, whose sophomore feature "Whiplash" premiered at the festival in 2014. When he saw the film's scheduled time, he believed it was perhaps dead on arrival.

'Hard to sustain momentum'

"Whiplash" was chosen as the opening night film of that year's Sundance. You read that and automatically think that is prime real estate for a movie. No competition. General excitement for starting the fest. A good time all around, right? Well, Damien Chazelle didn't see it that way, and with good reason. Speaking with Interview Magazine, Chazelle expressed his fear at what the opening night slot meant for the film's future:

"It's a slot that in the past has been not that beneficial to the film. It's hard to sustain momentum. A lot of buyers aren't in town yet. It just has a reputation for being a slot for less good films. We worried that people would think less of the film because it was opening night. Usually, the really hot movies are Friday or Saturday, whereas opening night is the Thursday night."

Both times I have attended Sundance, I haven't seen a movie that opened Thursday night. You've been flying all day, getting your lodging squared away, and trudging through snow. You want to relax and get a fresh start the next day when you start seeing five movies every day. Luckily, Sony Pictures Classics did see "Whiplash" and bought it for almost $3 million, and the film went on to get nominated for Best Picture and win J.K. Simmons a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Also, Chazelle was able to find a silver lining in the early time slot:

"Looking back, obviously it worked out. I'm actually happy that it got to be opening night because you get there, you screen it, and then you're able enjoy the rest of the festival. I didn't have this premiere screening looming over my head giving me anxiety. So Sundance ended up being a dream. It was great."