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‘Freaky Tales,’ Kristen Stewart and Christopher Nolan help kick off Sundance Film Festival

Jan 18, 2024, 8:47 PM | Updated: 9:20 pm

PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 18: (L-R) Robert Downey Jr. and Christopher Nolan attend the 2024 Sundanc...

PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 18: (L-R) Robert Downey Jr. and Christopher Nolan attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival Opening Night Gala: Celebrating 40 Years at DeJoria Center on January 18, 2024 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Thousands of cinema lovers, Hollywood celebrities, industry executives and filmmakers from around the world have arrived in a very snowy Park City, Utah, for 10 days of movie watching.

The 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival, the world’s premier showcase for independent film, kicks off Thursday with a starry gala honoring festival veterans like Kristen Stewart and Christopher Nolan and numerous world premieres.

Nineteen films are playing on day one, including documentaries about Brian Eno, Lollapalooza and Frida Kahlo, Yance Ford’s inquiry into policing in America, “Power,” as well as the mock government experiment “Girls State.” In fiction premieres, some lucky ticketholders will be among the first to see Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 80s-set “Freaky Tales” or “Thelma,” featuring June Squibb as a Los Angeles grandmother who gets scammed and goes on a mission to get her money back with the late Richard Roundtree.

The festival has always been a major sales market for studios and distributors looking for films to fill their slates, including both theatrical and streaming releases. But in the aftermath of the dual Hollywood strikes, sales this year could be even more robust. The theatrical release calendar for the first half of the year was “decimated,” producer Jason Blum noted at the opening day press conference. Around 80% of the 91 features playing do not yet have distributors.

“The one positive thing about the strike is a lot of movies that would have struggled probably shouldn’t,” Blum said. “I hope that a lot of Sundance movies end up in theaters quickly.”

Festival director Eugene Hernandez added that “these films are ready for their audience.”

Blum, a Sundance board member, has had a longstanding relationship with the festival going back to the premiere of “Reality Bites” in 1992, which he said he almost missed because he was trapped “in a snowbank with Ethan Hawke.”

Pedro Pascal appears in Freaky Tales by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck,an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun appear in Love Me by Sam Zuchero and Andy Zuchero, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Justine Yeung) A still from Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Herb Ritts / AUGUST.) A still from DEVO by Chris Smith, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) A still from Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Eva Sereny / Iconic Images. A still from Presence by Steven Soderbergh, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. A still from Skywalkers: A Love Story by Jeff Zimbalist, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) Phoebe-Rae Taylor appears in Out of My Mind by Amber Sealey, an official selection of the Family Matinee program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. (Noah Greenberg) A still from Napoleon Dynamite by Jared Hess, an official selection of the 40th Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) A still from "Eternal You" by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Konrad Waldmann) Jenna Murray appears in Winding Path by Alexandra Lazarowich and Ross Kauffman, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Ed David. Jenna Murray appears in Winding Path by Alexandra Lazarowich and Ross Kauffman, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Ed David) A still from "Skywalkers: A Love Story" by Jeff Zimbalist, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) "Whiplash" a Sundance Film Festival feature. (Courtesy Sundance Institute) "Little MIss Sunshine" a Sundance Film Festival selection.  (Courtesy Sundance Institute) "Boyhood" from the Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy Sundance Institute) A film still from "Reservoir Dogs" by Quentin Tarantino, an official selection of the From the Collection program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival that first played at the festival in 1992. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) Redford speaking about the festival being for the filmmakers in a panel in 2012. (KSL TV) The opening press conference of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Left to right, Jason Blum interviews Joana Vicente, Sundance Institute CEO, Eugene Hernandez, Sundance Film Festival Director and Kim Yutani, the festival's Director of Programming, on Jan. 18, 2024, the opening morning of the 40th festival. (Larry D. Curtis, KSL TV)

Over the years, Blum has experienced both sides of the acquisition coin at Sundance, as the one buying films (including, he laughed, one of the least successful acquisitions ever, “Happy, Texas”) and the one selling them (like Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.”) He also brought Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” to the festival and said the response to that first screening “started the whole thing.”

The main hub of activity remains in Park City, where many of the shops and restaurants on Main Street have been transformed into a hub of branded lounges from various sponsors and media partners. In addition to the venues playing movies around the clock, there are various talks and panels on everything from the legacy of Sundance to making your first feature. There will also be screenings in Salt Lake City, and, beginning on Jan. 25, online showings of select films for virtual festival passholders.

Slightly outside of town Thursday, some of the festival’s most well-heeled attendees will gather at the DeJoria Center in Kamas, Utah, for an opening night gala in which Nolan, Stewart, “Past Lives” director Celine Song and “The Eternal Memory” director Maite Alberdi will receive tribute awards.

“Presenting ‘Memento’ at the Sundance Film Festival marked a pivotal moment in my career,” Nolan said in an earlier statement. “This award is a full circle moment and testament to the extraordinary influence of independent filmmaking.”

Presenters expected at the gala include Robert Downey Jr., toasting his “Oppenheimer” director, and Jesse Eisenberg giving the award to Stewart, his friend and “Adventureland” co-star.

Stewart has two films debuting at Sundance this year: Rose Glass’s crime thriller “Love Lives Bleeding,” which is heading to theaters in March, and “Love Me,” with Steven Yeun, in which a buoy and a satellite fall in love.

“I think Sundance is a vital, vital part of the entertainment ecosystem and I think it’s undervalued,” Blum said. “Without Sundance, the United States would not be where it is in entertainment and not enough people make that connection.”

The Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 28.

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‘Freaky Tales,’ Kristen Stewart and Christopher Nolan help kick off Sundance Film Festival