Jane Schoenbrun is the writer-director of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. In this essay, Schoenbrun reflects on navigating the film industry and distribution market in that year post-Sundance.
Here’s what happens when you get into Sundance:
Agents and managers start reaching out to you saying they’ve heard good things about your film. Sales agents too, asking for links, promising not to share them. And coordinators at distribution companies. And publicists, and festivals asking you to apply. It’s like a bomb has gone off in your inbox. It’s exciting. It’s a cottage industry.
It’s been a year now since my first narrative feature, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, premiered virtually at Sundance — a legitimately life-changing, brain-scrambling experience. World’s Fair follows teenaged Casey (Anna Cobb) as she experiments with her identity through an online horror game set within the “creepypasta” community. We follow Casey as her videos grow increasingly disturbing, and as the lines between fiction and reality blur. World’s Fair is, I believe, a genuine art film: a deeply personal, strange and specific piece that I knew would frustrate as many viewers as it won over. This was not a film made with profit margins or streaming metrics in mind, and so it was quite jarring indeed to be thrust into the orgy of commerce that is the Sundance sales bubble.
Of course, I’d be lying to say that I wasn’t down to participate in said orgy. I’d been making work within the New York microbudget film scene for the better part of a decade. I’d seen friends go through the Sundance experience. I was very aware that the commercial landscape Sundance provided entry to often existed in open hostility to the types of personal, transgressive art films I loved and wanted to spend my life making and supporting. And yet: The dream of stability as an artist is an enticing one. The dream of someday owning a home. Of at least affording my share of the rent…
And so I took a lot of calls, shared a lot of links, and learned how to do a “Zoom general meeting.” And I actually met a lot of lovely people working in Los Angeles.
I also met a lot of… less lovely people. One sales agent told me my film needed “more kills per minute.” Another told me, and I quote, “originality is a value add from a creative perspective, but it’s bad for business.” Yet another bragged about being a bully and complained about how bullies get a bad rap in our industry. One major streamer passed on our film, and then a week later someone told me that this streamer was telling people during meetings that they were currently looking for “films like World’s Fair, just more commercial.”
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful and I don’t mean to complain, because really I have nothing to complain about. The reviews for my film were great; touching, even. We sold the film for more money than we made it for. It’ll be in theaters nationwide in April via Utopia and on HBO Max in the summer. And best of all, I’m currently deep in the trenches of pre-production on my next film, which I’m extremely lucky to be making with A24, perhaps the premiere home in the U.S. for the types of films I hope to spend my career making.
I’m deeply grateful, and absolutely in awe of my luck and fortune. I believe that I am, as they say, a genuine “Sundance success story.”
But if I’m going to be a “Sundance success story,” I’d like to use the platform to speak about what I’ve long felt is the core conundrum of American filmmaking today: the inherent tension between art and commerce.
In 2018, I wrote the following in an email interview with the online publication No Film School, reflecting on a documentary I had made and released for free on the internet:
“Money is not the end goal for me… Money has nothing to do with artmaking and filmmaking except for the fact that it is a very unfortunate means to a much larger end. Money is a man-made roadblock. Money is a cultural gatekeeper. Money is both very real and very fake, a collective hallucination. If you’re an artist, or someone who values culture and education and truth, it will become your prison, your road to a dead-end.
“I plan to start commodifying and attaching a commercial value to my work at some point, because you need to do so to sustain yourself as an artist. But not yet. When I think about why I spent months obsessively working on this film, money could not be further away in my brain as a motivation.”
Flash forward three years to virtual Sundance. And gentle reader, let me assure you: I was now ready to start commodifying.
I think I was a bit more prepared for this dangerous journey than most. I knew that when your film gets into Sundance, no one on the other end of those Zooms is likely to tell you, Think really carefully in this moment about everything that’s important to you long-term as an artist, because a lot of people are about to try to commodify you.
No: People tell you that you need to start thinking about television. They want to know if you’re interested in Marvel; what IP you’re dreaming about remaking. They want to sell you up a ladder.
And these people really seem like they know what they’re talking about. And they all know each other: the agents and the sales agents and the distributors and the production companies and the financiers. It’s like a little club you’re being invited into. And because you’re still riding high off the hype of Sundance, you maybe don’t realize how vulnerable you are at that moment. How easily your focus can drift from your own definition of “success” to the definition of “success” these agents of capital are setting for you.
I am a realist: I don’t believe there’s such a thing in the U.S. as “independent film.” Even my small, weird film made in the woods with friends was made to be birthed into a hyper-complex commercial system. And it’s this same system now that I am trying to navigate at a higher level, with an artist’s heart. (And with, it must be said, a group of amazing collaborators and producers and managers and distributors who I have chosen very carefully, and who I genuinely believe are allies in this delicate quest to make personal art within a commercial system.)
I think this is all you can hope for as you make films in the U.S. in 2021: not to ignore the realities of capital, but to do everything you can to stay firmly entrenched on the art side of the art/commerce divide.
I reject the idea that to describe myself first and foremost as an artist makes me immature or difficult. I think this is an important soapbox to stand on. To say as a young filmmaker: I am an artist. I am Team Art. Art matters.
I made World’s Fair to express something personal and complicated; something that I didn’t know how else to speak about. And the film resonated exactly because of this. Certain audiences saw themselves in what I was exploring, and they felt a tiny little bit less alone because of it. This exchange is beautiful, and it has nothing to do with money except that money was the means to an end to make it happen.
And yet alas: We live in a country that does not value art outside the bounds of commercial contextualization. To care about art above profit is to be “pretentious” or “naive” or “difficult.” To tell someone that you’re an artist at a party is to almost undoubtedly get laughed at later. What a shame! Why do we disdain this idea so much in this country — that someone might take themselves seriously as an artist?
Anna Cobb, my brilliant lead actor in World’s Fair, said something to me after we wrapped that her mom always tells her. She said: “Jane, you don’t have time for anything that doesn’t have soul.”
I think it’s beautiful advice, and I’ve carried it with me every day since Sundance.
Because I think the strange secret of this whole weird enterprise is this: the soul is the fuel.
Commerce doesn’t want art to know it, but commerce is super jealous of art. Because art comes from the soul, and the soul is something that commerce cannot access without us. It can try to impersonate it, to remake it, to water it down or wipe it from the cultural conversation. But it can never truly find it.
It needs artists to do that. And I’m proud to continue stubbornly insisting that that’s my job.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, opens in theaters on Friday and is available on demand on April 22.
Main image (above): Anna Cobb on the set of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, directed by Jane Schoenbrun. Photo by Carlos Zozya / Utopia