Hollywood Brief: Sundance Superlatives, The Black Exorcist? ‘Office’ Reunion

Plus, Paramount does some Tom Cruise shuffling and Josh Duhamel steps into a ”mighty” new role
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Here are the stories the industry is buzzing about and some that they will be after reading this column.

Apple’s Smooth Moves: Sundance’s Biggest Deal

We hear the same refrain each year about the Sundance sales market being slow, but this year is a little different, as a handful of hot titles — looking at you, Emily the Criminal — didn’t premiere until the second half of the festival. Granted, most of these indie movies were likely screened for buyers in advance of the festival, including Fresh, which sold to Searchlight Pictures prior to its premiere. So while Apple’s worldwide acquisition of Cha Cha Real Smooth for $15 million will likely end up as the biggest deal of the festival and is surely impressive for the film’s modest budget, that figure remains a far cry from the streamer’s $25 million purchase of CODA last year.

CODA, of course, is nabbing nominations left and right from guilds and critics groups, whereas there really weren’t any breakout hits or potential Best Picture nominees among this year’s lineup. Though this year’s festival again ran quite smoothly from a technical perspective, it got off to a rough start, as one film after another left me disappointed over the first few days — none more so than Lena Dunham‘s sophomore and sophomoric feature Sharp Stick, which had been my most anticipated film of the festival.

Once that rocky first weekend was in the books, the festival started to gather some momentum, and we were finally treated to the festival’s cream of the crop — Cha Cha Real SmoothEmily the Criminal, and Palm Trees and Power Lines. Though the narrative features underwhelmed on the whole, the festival’s documentary selection delivered once again, from the outrageous 2nd Chance to the volcanologist tale Fire of Love, which sold to National Geographic Films following a magma-heated bidding war.

In addition to Fresh, Searchlight spent another $7.5 million on domestic rights to Emma Thompson‘s sex-positive comedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, while Sony Pictures Classics acquired Living, an update of Akira Kurosawa‘s Ikiru that it surely sees as a potential awards play for Bill Nighy, who plays a man with a terminal illness. Elsewhere, Shudder made its presence felt by picking up the unnerving Danish thriller Speak No Evil, which seems like a good fit. Look for Emily the Criminal to generate significant interest, and for Thandie Newton‘s thriller God’s Country to score a healthy VOD deal. And now, here are a dozen Sundance superlatives:

Best Picture – Cha Cha Real Smooth
Best Director – Jamie DackPalm Trees and Power Lines
Best Actor – (tie) John Boyega892 and Jonathan TuckerPalm Trees and Power Lines
Best Actress – Aubrey PlazaEmily the Criminal
Best Supporting Actor – Fedja van HuetSpeak No Evil
Best Supporting Actress – Dakota JohnsonCha Cha Real Smooth
Best Screenplay – Cooper RaiffCha Cha Real Smooth
Best Breakout Performance – Lily McInernyPalm Trees and Power Lines
Best Dance Sequence – The opening credits of After Yang
Best Sleeping Aid – After Yang (so much tea talk!)
Best Robot – Charles Petrescu, Brian and Charles
Best Performance in a Bad Movie – Jon BernthalSharp Stick

Zac Efron sits in the audience during the UFC 269 (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Mission: Skydance

Speaking of splashy Apple deals, the still-growing streamer struck a multi-year deal with David Ellison‘s Skydance, which makes sense given that Apple had already acquired two films from Skydance Animation — Luck and Spellbound. The pact makes sense for both sides, as it gives Apple a high-volume producer with access to strong IP and plenty of experience making the kind of blockbuster fare that the streamer so desperately needs, and it gives Skydance a home for its ambitious slate, which already includes Apple originals such as Peter Farrelly‘s Greatest Beer Run Ever starring Zac Efron and Ghosted starring Chris Evans and Ana de Armas. Skydance also produces the big-budget Apple series Foundation, which evidently performed well enough to merit a second season.

Not only did Paramount lose Skydance this week, but it also lost Mission: Impossible 7, at least for the rest of the year. The studio decided to move the Tom Cruise sequel to July 2023, though it’s unclear whether that’s due to the pandemic, or if it just needed more time in post, or whether Paramount just wanted to space out its Cruise movies, since Top Gun: Maverick is slated to take to the skies in May, so there wasn’t much point in releasing M:I 7 in September.

I also think the studio could stand to spread out its hits over the course of the calendar year, as it has Scream and Jackass Forever in Q1, sequels to Top Gun and Sonic the Hedgehog in Q2, and movies starring Brad Pitt (Babylon) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Killers of the Flower Moon) in Q4. The studio just didn’t need a double dose of Cruise this year, which means the next time we see Ethan Hunt on the big screen, Cruise will be 61 years old. But you know what? He makes it look easy and there’s no one better.

Taking Oscar’s Pulse

After the PGA, DGA and WGA nominations were announced this week, it’s time to take the pulse of awards season and see where the Oscar race stands. There was nothing too shocking about the PGA list, which obviously offers the closest indication to how the Oscars may play out because it also employs a preferential ballot voting system.

Can Drive My Car ride a wave of critical support to displace either Tick Tick… BoomBeing the Ricardos or Don’t Look Up, or will it be something a bit more commercial, like House of Gucci or Spider-Man: No Way Home that sneaks in there? And what about films like Nightmare Alley and The Tragedy of Macbeth, both of which boast strong below-the-line support due to their impeccable crafts? If anything, I suspect that international voters could steer Drive My Car to a nomination, thereby knocking out Being the Ricardos or Don’t Look Up, which strike me as the most vulnerable. But for the most part, I think the Academy’s Best Picture lineup will mirror the PGA’s fairly closely.

I still think the actual Best Picture winner remains totally up in the air, and that feel-good films like CODA and King Richard will have an edge this season, but don’t discount Licorice Pizza after Paul Thomas Anderson‘s DGA Award nomination. I think there’s a lot of love out there for that movie, even if some people are afraid to admit it. There’s also a lot of passion out there for CODA and West Side Story and even The Power of the Dog, but keep an eye on Dune, which is the only movie to have been nominated by just about every major guild. I thought it was (half of) a big-budget bore and nowhere close to Mad Max: Fury Road, but it will certainly have support from below-the-line voters.

More Spinoffs and Sequels for WarnerMedia

James Gunn told Deadline’s Hero Nation podcast that he’s cooking up a second spinoff of The Suicide Squad following the success of Peacemaker on HBO Max. Gunn didn’t reveal which Squad member the spinoff would follow, though Deadline cast doubt on Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn and Idris Elba‘s Bloodsport being at its center, and also asked specifically about Peter Capaldi’s The Thinker. I’m not sure Daniela Melchior is a big enough star yet to center a franchise around, so I wonder who that would leave? King Shark could be fun, as could Weasel, but given the way the wind has been blowing lately, it’ll be Pete Davidson‘s Blackguard. Oy!

New Line has tapped Jeremy Slater (riding high off a Moon Knight trailer that has outperformed Marvel’s other Disney+ series) to write a sequel to Mortal Kombat, which given its R-rating, mixed reviews and challenging release date during the pandemic, fared pretty well at the box office, grossing $83 million worldwide. It also did decent numbers on HBO Max in relation to its mid-tier budget. It’s unclear whether Simon McQuoid will be back to direct the sequel, but here’s hoping MKII actually depicts the Mortal Kombat tournament, which the first film spent the entire time teasing, only to wrap up after training was complete. I’d like whoever signed off on that idea to “get over here!” now.

Rainn Wilson, Steve Carell and John Krasinski of “The Office” (Photo by Robin Platzer/FilmMagic)

Office Reunion, Josh the Replacement

There’s an Office reunion on the horizon, but probably not in the way that you hoped. No, the Dunder Mifflin gang isn’t hopping on Zoom for charity or anything like that. Instead, Steve Carell has signed on for a role in John Krasinski‘s next movie, which is titled If. It’s a family film based on Krasinski’s original idea about a child’s journey to rediscover their imagination. The director has assembled an intriguing cast including Ryan ReynoldsPhoebe Waller-Bridge and young Minari breakout Alan Kim, but this movie is a far cry from the Quiet Place universe and will require a deft touch. I’ve seen Carell strike just the right note in several family films so he’s a welcome addition, even if Jim will be the one “bossing” Michael around this time.

Elsewhere in casting news, Claire Danes has signed on to join Jesse Eisenberg and Lizzy Caplan in FX’s adaptation of Taffy Brodesser Akner‘s acclaimed novel Fleshman Is in Trouble. Danes was dynamite throughout Homeland’s eight-season run on Showtime and she has already wrapped her return to television with Apple’s The Essex Serpent, and though her character, Fleishman’s ex-wife, goes missing in this series, I’m looking forward to this one just a little bit more.

Josh Duhamel has stepped in as the new male lead in Season 2 of The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers. The first season starring Lauren Graham and Emilio Estevez was better than it had any right being, but Estevez skated off the ice once it was over. He claimed it was due to creative differences, though reports indicated that Estevez declined to comply with the show’s COVID protocols. Duhamel will play a former pro hockey player-turned-coach who runs the intense summer hockey institute where the Ducks land in Season 2.

It’s a shame that Joshua Jackson didn’t want to come back, as it feels like the producers could’ve given his beloved character, Charlie Conway, a similar backstory, but as noted last week, Jackson just signed on to star in a Fatal Attraction series, so perhaps he was unavailable, or simply not eager to return to the franchise that made him a star in the first place. Either way, Duhamel is quickly becoming Hollywood’s go-to replacement star, as he also stepped into Armie Hammer‘s shoes in Shotgun Wedding opposite Jennifer Lopez. Not a bad gig if you can get it!
Lee Daniels participates in a panel discussion during the TIME 100 Summit 2019 on April 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TIME)

The Black Exorcist?

Along with comic book movies, horror has been a fairly reliable performer throughout the pandemic, which explains why studios and streamers are desperate for genre-themed packages. To that end, Netflix plunked down $65 million for an exorcism movie from Lee Daniels that will feature a largely Black cast — something we don’t often see when it comes to exorcism movies.

Daniels’ Billie Holliday actress Andra Day will star as Latoya Ammons, whose family experienced strange incidents in their Gary, Indiana home that grew progressively worse and were covered by the local media at the time. The Ammons children spoke in deep voices and growls, even levitating and walking backwards up a wall at one point, and authorities are said to have taken the family’s claims seriously.

Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin will play Day’s son, Rob Morgan (Don’t Look Up) will play her boyfriend, and Glenn Close will play her mother, while Oscar winner Octavia Spencer all play the clergy member who tries to help the Ammons family. Aunjanue Ellis, who deserves an Oscar nomination for her work in King Richard, will co-star in an undisclosed role.

Apparently, Relativity was developing this project at one point before declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but former Relativity exec Tucker Tooley stuck with it, acquiring the rights once Relativity’s option lapsed.

Daniels has never really made a movie like this but he has put together an impressive cast and he has the budget to allow for some solid scares, so here’s hoping he uses it wisely. Netflix beat out MGM and Miramax for the commercial package, which the streamer hopes to turn into the next Conjuring or Amityville Horror-type franchise. And it looks like it’s going to get made well before David Gordon Green’s Exorcist trilogy, which cost Universal a cool $400 million.

Peter Dinklage attends the UK premiere of ‘Cyrano’ at Odeon Luxe Leicester Square. (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Dinklage vs. Disney

Kudos to Peter Dinklage for taking Disney to task for its upcoming Snow White movie, which will once again incorporate the fairy tale’s beloved seven dwarves.

While Dinklage didn’t indicate any ill will towards actress Rachel Zegler, who has been cast as Snow White, he said he was “a little taken aback” when Disney celebrated the casting of “a Latina actress” in that role without acknowledging its problematic depiction of dwarves.

“Take a step back and look at what you’re doing there. It makes no sense to me. You’re progressive in one way but then you’re still making that fucking backwards story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together? What the fuck are you doing, man? Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soapbox? I guess I’m not loud enough. I don’t know which studio that is but they were so proud of it. All love and respect to the actress and all the people who thought they were doing the right thing. But I’m just like, what are you doing?”

Dinklage has a fair point, though some would say that he took advantage of similar opportunities over the course of his rise through the industry. Dwarves or no dwarves, I just don’t see why we need yet another version of Snow White. But to be fair, Disney issued a statement to Variety explaining that “to avoid reinforcing stereotypes from the original animated film, we are taking a different approach with these seven characters and have been consulting with members of the dwarfism community. We look forward to sharing more as the film heads into production after a lengthy development period.”

Disney seems to be asking for the benefit of the doubt here, and I’m inclined to give it to them given the strides the studio has made in terms of diversity and inclusion, even if there is still plenty of room for improvement.

New Favorite Couple Alert!

And finally, we don’t normally pay too much attention to the personal lives of celebs in this space but the news that Noelle co-stars Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader are dating — and have been for more than a year — had us shook. I tweeted that I don’t know which actor I’m jealous of more, and I stand by that initial assessment. Is Kendrick-Hader my new favorite couple? Possibly. I mean, Kurt and Goldie’s #1 status will always be safe, but this is certainly an entanglement to keep an eye on. We wish these two lovebirds all the bes