Reality Bites Redford’s Park City Picture Party

It’s been dubbed the year of the cellular, but the invasion of portable phones – often heard ringing during screenings – is just the tip of the iceberg of irksome realities at the just-wrapped Sundance Film Festival. The hard truth is that the premier showcase for independent film draws a Hollywood mainstream crowd and a very large one.

In five years, the event has more than doubled in attendance. The influx of filmmakers, studio and indie reps, talent and attendant managers, agents and publicists and the media now easily exceeds the population of the ski hamlet that is Park City. The grim verdict is that the festival hasn’t been able to keep up with the demands placed on it by attendees.

“It just isn’t pleasant anymore,” says producer James Shamus. “It’s crowded, over-priced and has lost its feisty spirit.”

Topping the list of physical complaints are the screening facilities. Industry visitors have noted time and again that no other prestige fest has such a paucity of first-class projection venues. Only the Holiday Village triplex is a regular cinema when the fest departs. The flagship Egyptian Theater does live events the rest of the year; the only other regular screening facilities are at the Prospector Inn and the Park City Library. This year, another screening venue was set up at the Olympia Park Hotel for press showings, and the renegade Slamdance selection screened in a conference room at the Yarrow Hotel.

But while the films may reflect the state of the art, the projectors and sound systems employed do not. Actor John Turturro voiced his displeasure that his performance in “Search and Destroy” could not be understood at its premiere screening at the Egyptian.

One distrib said he screened his Sundance films in New York, Los Angeles and other cities prior to the fest to ensure that critics would not have to see the movies at Sundance. That practice is increasing – not only because of projection problems but also due to increasingly difficult ticket demands.

“The festival has to build a screening facility if it wants to maintain its stature,” says First Look Pictures prexy Ray Price. “There should be two and ideally three good screens. Sundance has become such a significant spawning ground for the studios, I think they should be solicited to kick in funds to build it.”

Two years ago Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute sponsors the festival, said that while the intent was to remain small, at least one new screen is planned in the immediate future.

“The quality of the screening facilities improves every year,” says fest director Geoffrey Gilmore. “The Prospector setup was disappointing this year but we brought in our own equipment to the Egyptian and that turned out very well. There are plans for additional screens down the line, and there will definitely be improvements next year.”

Gilmore has stated the need to expand the event, possibly with a sidebar market akin to the Independent Feature Film Market held in September in New York. But the current six public venues can’t accommodate such a move.

For better or worse, Sundance has carved out a unique niche. Perhaps only a premiere at Cannes is deemed to have comparable allure.

But the annual sturm und drang of securing a fest berth has reached deafening levels. Rejection is such a sore point that Slamdance was created this year by a group of dissident filmmakers. Its selection of eight features and a selection of shorts was headquartered in nearby Salt Lake City but also managed to set up shop in Park City.

Critical response to the Slamdance titles has been generally positive, certainly bolstering Gilmore’s frustration about current screening limitations. Officially, Sundance organizers have downplayed the upstart’s significance and the quality of its selections. But one, who requested anonymity, said he thought that having dueling events was great and that the newcomer possessed a lot of the energy Sundance used to have when it was struggling to find its identity.

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