Described variously as ”Cannes with snow” and the ”last best hope of independent American cinema,” the Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday with showbiz honchos of every stripe, from powerhouse agents to fledgling producers and hopeful filmmakers, packing the snowcapped Utah resort town of Park City. Often lost in the crush of dealmaking is the fest’s original intent as a showcase for cutting-edge talents making chancy films with off-kilter sensibilities and dicey subject matters.
Fest founder Robert Redford aims to keep that original intent center stage. ”Our ambition was always to increase options for audiences,” says Redford, who, despite some reports that after more than a decade of spearheading the fest he’s backed away from it, insists that his role has merely evolved. ”In the beginning, I was front and center to get media attention, to try and say this was important. At that time there was no support for indie film.
”Now there’s no need for that. It doesn’t have to have my name attached to get attention.”
What doesn’t follow so easily is the dissonance between Sundance’s mandate to highlight films that speak with distinctive voices, and legions of industryites eager for product that will break out of the pack. So is there a clash of intent between the fest and its glitzy attendees? Redford proudly affirms the disparity.
”I think it’s absolutely true that the clash between art and commerce is in place at Sundance,” says Redford. ”In the beginning, no one came from the commerce world. Now you can’t keep them out.” But Redford disputes the notion that one can safely identify what is ”commercial” or ”mainstream” in today’s marketplace, and cites a Sundance discovery to make his point.
”Kevin Smith’s ”Clerks” would never have been seen if it were not for Sundance, and we’re very proud of that. Then Smith got co-opted and made a supposedly ‘commercial’ film, ‘Mall Rats,’ which was a disaster. Now he’s back to his independent voice, and we’re supporting that.” Smith’s new film, ”Chasing Amy,” is one of this year’s highly anticipated Sundance premieres.
About 125 features will be screened during the event’s 11 days, including the official competition sections that unwrap 18 dramatic features and 16 documentaries. All 34 films are ripe for discovery and, it is hoped, a commercial life, once the festival closes down and the crowds of indie film fans and showbiz operators head back to their urban haunts.
What sort of commercial life follows a film after Sundance is a question that is left unresolved by the contradictory results of many Sundance ”success” stories.
Last year’s crop included breakthrough hits such as ”Shine” and ”Big Night,” as well as box office disappointments like ”Bound,” ”Caught” and ”I Shot Andy Warhol.” ”The Spitfire Grill,” which Castle Rock snagged for an aston-ishing $10 million, netted $12.65 million in theatrical coin, a stark fact that has led to many predictions this year’s fest won’t see the same high-stakes bidding, but will instead flatten out into a situation where more titles are acquired for less stratospheric amounts.
But don’t be surprised if mere logic fails to carry the day. As Trea Hoving, Miramax executive VP of acquisitions and co-production, points out: ”If you’ve got all these people heading toward the same place at the same time, you’re obviously going to have a bidding war. It all depends on the quality of the product and the needs you have in your schedule for particular kinds of product.”
Erica Potter, First Look VP of marketing and publicity, concurs with Hoving’s skepticism about the biz’s ability to maintain self-control. ”I know everyone will say they’re not going to spend a certain amount, but if you want a picture and three others want the same film, depending on how important getting that film is to your overall strat-egy for the coming year, you have to be prepared to go outside the plan you made in advance.” Potter is one of six execs from First Look venturing north, along with acquisitions chief M.J. Peckos and company toppers Robbie and Ellen Little.
Though the fest’s competition lineup gets the lion’s share of pre-fest ink, the heat to find the next major talent sends execs scurrying to all corners of the fest. Potter says that First Look’s team ”looks at the fest as a whole.
”This has been developing the last two or three years. For instance, we bought ‘johns’ out of the American Spec-trum last year,” Potter says, referring to the section devoted largely to first-time directors.
Randolph Pitts, CEO of Lumiere Pictures, and a self-described ”Sundance fan,” is even more adamant about the importance of the various sidebars. ”Taking last year as an example,” Pitts says, ”the most interesting films were in American Spectrum. And the most interesting director by far was the late Russ Hexter, who made a brilliant film, ‘Dadetown.’ American Spectrum is an outstanding collection at least as strong as the competition. And the World Cinema section is improving steadily.”
Another factor that’s put the fest on the map is its status as a venue where cutting-edge talent gets an opportunity to bask in the attention of a media/industry avalanche few events anywhere can equal.
”Sundance is really the best opportunity to discover the newest talents,” William Morris VP Scott Lambert observes. ”It has an excitement you’d love to be able to bottle. Two years ago I saw this wonderful, energetic $30,000 film, ‘Rhythm Thief,’ by Matthew Harrison, and I was knocked out. Now, he’s just finished ‘Kicked in the Head’ for October Films.
As much as Sundance is now known as an elite industry schmoozefest, veteran festgoers like Pitts stress another aspect that, like the fest’s renegade origin, is all but obscured.
”This is a great place to see a film with a real audience of film buffs and scholars, says Pitts. ”It’s a real mix of film types, perhaps even more than Telluride.”
Hoving also lauds the fest for its eclectic audiences, while also pointing out the business upside of the mix. ”What’s nice about going to Sundance is that you get to see these films playing with a real audience,” says Hoving. ”It’s not just the agents and the biz people. For acquisition execs, it’s a real litmus test.”
The recent growth of the festival has been nothing short of phenomenal. To accommodate the demand, fest organizers have added an additional screen this year, and each location will have six rather than five shows daily. There will be a more extensive program running in Salt Lake City and, for the first time, a screening series in Ogden.
Artistic director Geoffrey Gilmore says those additions will add 20,000 seats over the course of the festival. Hopefully, it also will mean less griping about getting into screenings of films that develop a home-stretch buzz. And films that get through to Sundance audiences are clearly what the trip to the mountains is really about.
”Sundance isn’t about gay films or violent movies,” says Gilmore. ”It’s eclectic. There are established filmmakers like David Lynch this year and unknown iconoclasts like Eric Lea, who’s made a truly riveting, disturbing film with ‘George B.’ You have everything from ‘Poverty Outlaw,’ about the welfare system, to revivals of John Waters’ ‘Pink Flamingos’ and classic and relatively unknown Fassbinder films.”
Redford amplifies Gilmore’s point about the Sundance quest for eclecticism by addressing the harsh business side of the indie film explosion: ”Unlike the early ’70s, when independently minded films had to become part of the mainstream to be seen, the indies today are a whole alternative existing side by side with the blockbusters. So in a sense there are two mainstreams. And there’s no place for it all to go. So some very good films are spilling out the door and down the hall.” Redford insists that the Sundance mission is to force the market to come to the artists.
”Do you push filmmakers into conforming to the needs of the marketplace, or do you push the marketplace? I think you push the marketplace,” says Redford.
Slamdance, an extremely unofficial sidebar, some might say competitor, to Sundance, originated out of rejection. A couple of competition also-rans decided to set up a screen and show a selection of features that didn’t make the cut. It’s a testament to Sundance’s perceived sway that the outlaw group decided to set up camp right in the middle of the fray.
”I know there’s been friction between the two,” says sales rep Tom Garvin, of the rivalries between the Sun/Slam camps. ”But I liken the situation to Cannes and the Directors Fortnight. The latter evolved out of a frustration that some very interesting new talent wasn’t being seen at Cannes, and, rightly or wrongly, many filmmakers felt the same way about Sundance. I think the competition is great, and I say let them (Slamdance) have their Fortnight. Ultimately it’s better for everyone and provides an opportunity for other voices to ring in.”