PARK CITY, Utah – The screenings are packed, there are more parties than ever, the snow is great, the streets seem as jammed as midtown Manhattan on a Friday evening, and the Sundance Film Festival has charged out of the gate over the weekend at full speed.
As usual, everyone is anxious to get a line on the buzz, on what films might emerge as discoveries and get picked up for multimillion-dollar figures. But it is just this aspect of his festival that Sundance topper Robert Redford believes gets overplayed, for obvious reasons.
“All that goes on around the festival is fashion. But the core remains the same,” Redford said in an interview at his Sundance office on Saturday. “Each year we fight something new, and this year I think it is probably the commercial expectations for films based on what’s happened last year and at recent festivals.
“Ever since ‘sex, lies, & videotape,’ the question has been, ‘What’s the next “sex, lies,” and then “Reservoir Dogs”?’ To me, that’s not the point. We don’t occupy ourselves with the commercial viability of the films we show. Everyone asks, ‘What’s the buzz?,’ and I hate that word. Or people will look at the program in advance and say, ‘The festival doesn’t seem commercial,’ but how do they know?
“People would like to define the festival by the ‘commercial’ films that come out of it, but there’s so much more to it,” Redford said. “You can’t lasso this festival because of the diversity. It’s too big.”
There are always people who get upset with certain entries and ask him, “How could you show a film like that?”
But Redford said, “I like that. I like that there can be films that abuse and films that amuse.”
Among the overriding questions regarding the festival that seem to crop up year after year, the most common have to do with its size:
* the problem of Park City bursting at its seams from the number of people who now attend;
* the extent to which a new 900-seat theater, due to be ready next year, will help alleviate the crush;
* and improvement of the standards of exhibition and projection, which have proved particularly problematic this year.
Quite a few screenings have been delayed by a half-hour or more and at least one was canceled altogether after the audience waited for an hour.
To these questions, Redford has answers that have remained consistent over the years: He has ”mixed feelings” about the size of the fest – “It’s gotten to be a monster. A good monster, but there it is” – but wants to keep the event in Park City because “I like the intimate atmosphere. I like the energy, and I don’t want to see that change.” He does feel “obliged to improve the quality of exhibition.”
As for Park City itself, the town is growing significantly and promises to continue doing so as the entire Salt Lake City area runs up toward the Winter Olympics in 2002, when the conflict of dates may force the fest to find another slot on the calendar, at least for one year. But Park City’s expansion, which is entirely unrelated to the festival, is helping to perhaps create just enough breathing room to keep it a viable home for the ever-growing fest.
For Redford, there are a couple of key ways the festival is changing that he sees as very positive, and they relate directly to the issue of diversity that he sees as so important.
“You could just about say that it used to be enough to be a black filmmaker, or a gay or lesbian filmmaker or a woman to have your film selected. But now, we’re no longer using gender or ethnicity to describe a film because the issue of quality has become uppermost.
“We’re also seeing a lot of returnees. This year we have Errol Morris, Victor Nunez, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, Robert Downey Sr., all of whom have had films here before. The independent film movement is maturing, but you’ve got people who are still doing it. And many of the documentaries are more personal, and I find that a sign of changing times,” Redford added.
A related development over the past year has been the launching of the Sundance Channel on cable television. The network currently is said to have 2 million subscribers, with a viewership of 5 million, and is competing for a niche also served by the Independent Film Channel.
‘More contemporary work’
Redford, at his press conference on Saturday morning, said, “The philosophy of the channel is to take the festival to television. What I think earmarks us is that we’re able to show more premieres, we’re able to diversify. Our ability that makes us unique is to show more contemporary work.”
Part of what drove Redford into television was the waning of the arthouse, the diminishing space available for independent and specialized fare in theaters. “There are more films being made, and the quality of independent films is increasing, which pleases me, but the proportions are off,” Redford opined.
Just as with big studio releases, “There is commercial pressure being put on independent films, but they need a little breathing space, they need some opportunity for discovery. The pressure on every film is to open big, and if it’s not doing well it’ll be out by Monday. But one thing that’s inevitable is change, and it’s going to show up in the area of distribution and exhibition, which is why it seemed like a good idea to get into television, which is increasing the opportunities for the filmmakers and for the audience.”
Away from the hype
Specifically, Redford feels that distribs and exhibitors have to get back to the approach of platforming non-mainstream films, “so you can get away from some of the hype and create an environment where the audience and the film can just relate to each other.” He also vigorously endorses the occasionally voiced view that large multiplexes should devote at least one screen to independent or foreign films to serve the audience interested in checking out alternative fare, arguing that this could benefit filmmakers, viewers and even the profitability of the theaters.
As far as his personal filmmaking plans are concerned, Redford left Sundance Sunday in order to resume pre-production on “The Horse Whisperer,” in which he will direct himself for the first time. Lensing of winter scenes will begin in March in New York State and, after a hiatus, remainder of the picture will be shot in Montana through the summer. His starring in the Lee Tamahori actioner “Shooter” has been postponed for the time being.
Two other productions from his Wildwood company are also due to go before the cameras this year, Tamara Jenkins’ “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” which was developed through the Sundance Lab, and Steve Zaillian’s “Civil Action,” about a case brought against companies in Massachusetts for polluting.
Two long-term projects Redford is still intent upon doing are “Time and Again” and “George Washington,” which Michael Caton-Jones would direct, while Redford himself plans to helm “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” a mystical story about a fictional golf match in 1931. Redford is also involved in “Skin Walkers,” an adaptation of the Tony Hillerman novel, which Dan Sackheim will direct shortly; Ed Burns’ new project; and the next film by Lee David Zlotoff. Redford and Sundance also have been dealing with the difficult aftermath of a fire that burned down the Sundance administration building in June, destroying essential documents, records, computer files, films, posters and many irreplaceable items. Cause of the blaze remains unknown.
Although it is not Redford’s way to blow his own horn about his accomplishments, he is willing to express his satisfaction that the festival has managed to help “legitimize independent film’s place in the film world in general. I’m proud of the fact that, whatever contributions we’ve made, we’ve increased the legitimacy of independent film.”