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Cyber schmooze

Dot-coms descend on Park City as indie showcase diversifies for 2000

This year in Park City, you may find yourself in a cozy bus watching short films on mini monitors, as you wind your way through the snow to your next screening.

The idea comes from AtomFilms, the Web site shingle that along with IFILM and other dot.com companies will descend on Park City in greater numbers than ever before.

Such Internet start-ups hope to make names for themselves while lifting the short filmmaker out of oblivion and showing the indie community that the digital revolution has indeed arrived.

In fact, new media and other ‘dances’ will be all around Park City: ShowBizData is hosting a worldwide pitch festival on its Web site; Slamdance is back for a sixth year, with features, shorts and its streaming video display; and No Dance and SlamDunk, both three years old, are hosting a wide array of digital and new technology events.

But what does this all really mean?

“I have never received so many calls from dot.com companies,” says Sundance’s Nicole Guillemet. “Who are all these people? What is it that they are launching? I guess when they get here, we’ll see who is really providing a service to the independent filmmaker.”

Questions to be answered

Adds fest director Geoffrey Gilmore: “Clearly, the Internet is being driven by commerce, but it’s not clear yet how that community will open up possibilities for distribution and help reach diverse and niche communities.”

Gilmore continues: “I am not trying to be overly cynical, but the one thing that is clear about the Internet is that it is an enormously powerful ally. People are dying for content, though at times it can be a mindless kind of embracing of any content.”

Russell Schwartz, president of USA Films who will be in Park City to launch the pics “Joe Gould’s Secret” and “Wonderland,” jokingly says about the Internet folks: “Certainly, if nothing else, it will make dinner reservations harder to get.”

But there’s more new to Park City this year than the Internet and all things digital: Sundance fest programmers say the slate is more diverse than ever and that it is more committed to the selected filmmakers; for the first time, all filmmakers whose pics are in competition will have their lodging paid for during the fest’s entire 10 days (Jan. 20-30).

In addition, the fest has introduced the House of Docs — a community space designed to create a dialogue among the ever-increasing tribe of documentary filmmakers.

Further, the fest has designated for each of its divisions — World, Frontier, Midnight, American Spectrum, Premieres, Dramatic Competition, and Documentaries — a specific theater that will serve as that division’s home base.

Fest’s raison d’etre

But, as always, it is the films and filmmakers in which fest programmers, acquisitions execs, agents, publicists, managers and the fest-going public place their highest hopes.

“We are doing it all for the filmmakers,” says Guillemet. “This is not false advertising. The pressures of our jobs makes it easy to forget all that.”

Gilmore says this year’s films are “more about something” than in years past: “The twenty-something angst movie isn’t getting made,” he says. “It’s less the Tarantino wanna-be loaded films. These films have plots and narratives.”

Notably, the number of films made by women is up this year to a remarkable 40% of all fest films.

Notes Gilmore: “What’s impressive about the women’s work is its eclecticism. Sometimes, we have seen women’s work in the past that was assigned to certain arenas. It’s just not the case anymore.”

The buzz meter

Among the films getting the perennial early hype propagated by acquisition execs and other film scouts is Gurinder Chadha’s “What’s Cooking?,” which has its world premiere as the fest’s opening-night pic.

An Englishwoman of Indian descent who lives in Los Angeles, Chadha juxtaposes the Thanksgiving preparations of four diverse Los Angeles households — African American, Jewish, Latino and Vietnamese. The film stars Alfre Woodward, Joan Chen, Mercedes Ruehl, Julianna Margulies, Lainie Kazan and Kyra Sedgwick.

Also generating buzz is Valerie Breiman’s “Love and Sex,” which stars Famke Janssen and Jon Favreau.

Described as a romantic fable about the frustrations of finding love — if not just a good date — in today’s precarious singles scene, “Love and Sex” is the first feature from Breiman, a San Francisco- bred writer who has worked mostly in television.

Brieman, still completing the pic’s post-production as of mid-January, says: “The film is so ripped off from my life — my sex life, actually — that it will be most bizarre and exciting to see how the audience responds. It’s such an audience-driven film, and I only hope that other people think it’s as funny as I do.”

Though some agents and acquisitions execs have already seen “Love and Sex” and dozens of other films available for purchase, the team behind director Jon Shear’s “Urbania” is being more tight-lipped.

Shear is adamant about not showing his film to anyone prior to the fest. “I like the element of surprise,” he says. “I think it’s the type of film that will benefit from an audience.”

Director Marc Forster’s “Everything Put Together” starring Radha Mitchell (“High Art”) has generated considerable pre-fest heat as well — especially since few people have seen it and because it is one of two fest entries shot on digital video.

Wary of hype, Forster explains his decision to go digital: “I was inspired by ‘Celebration.’ Just like a painter can choose between water-colors and oil, a filmmaker has many different tools to choose from. I am excited to see how people respond to the look of the film, the story and everything else.”

For one, Sony Picture’s Classics’ co-prexy, Michael Barker, is looking forward to seeing whether digital films “can gain respect as a genre, not just be a one-shot oddity like ‘Celebration.’ ”

Other films of note: “Next Stop Wonderland’s helmer Brad Anderson’s “Happy Accidents” (for which, it is rumored, Miramax will have a first early look); the Shooting Gallery production “You Can Count on Me,” starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo; “Drop Back Ten,” starring James LeGros; “The Tao of Steve”; two American Spectrum offerings, “Dropping Out” and “Intern” (with Dominique Swain); “Saving Grace” with Brenda Blethyn, unspooling in World Cinema; documentaries “Dark Days,” “Legacy” and “Well-Founded Fear”; and the Park City at Midnight’s “Psycho Beach Party.”

Avoiding war games

In the wake of its acquisition of last year’s sleeper hit, “The Blair Witch Project,” Artisan Entertainment will be closely observed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be in a buying mode.

Artisan prexy Amir Malin, who notes his company elected not to pick up a single film out of Toronto, says Artisan’s philosophy is to be very selective. But, he adds, “If there is a film we fall in love with, we do our best to acquire it.

“I look at how I respond to the film in context of its marketability,” Malin says. “And also from the point of view of economics — the return on our investment. At the end of the day, we are in a business and we have a responsibility to make money for our shareholders.”

Malin — who says the indie marketplace has been “dreadful” in the last six months — is in the driver’s seat, but the rest of the acquisitions community is coming to Park City with an air of caution.

Most execs are particularly wary of pics that get over-hyped and this year — they say — they will avoid getting caught up in bidding wars.

Paramount Classics’ co-prexy Ruth Vitale notes: “If it looks like a very good film and there is a margin to make money, we will buy. But if the bidding gets out of hand, we won’t be there.”

And Lions Gate’s co-prexy Tom Ortenberg says: “Lions Gate does not do bidding wars. We don’t have a win-at-any-cost mentality.”

Adds co-prexy Mark Urman: “Money is better spent on marketing and distributing the film than buying it.”

“I go into every year with the same mantra,” says Fine Line prexy Mark Ordesky, a company that nabbed three pics at Toronto in September. “Keep one eye on the festival, another on the real marketplace.”

Shorts list

One aspect of this year’s Sundance that can’t be over-hyped is the added attention short filmmakers will get at all of this years’ fest events in Park City.

Says Sundance vet Jonathan Dana: “Shorts are the coin of the digital realm. The attention they are getting will add to the brilliance and innovation of short filmmaking.”

Roger Raderman, IFILM’s founder and co-chairman — whose staff will be actively acquiring shorts — boasts that on his Web site “the spirit is of a true democracy. Everyone gets a shot and it is the audience that decides what it likes most.”

Liz Mann of the Sundance Channel –a station with output deals at Artisan, USA Films and Paramount Classics — says her scouts will be making the rounds to shorts screenings, selectively seeking content to license from filmmakers.

But for Miramax’s VP of acquisitions, Matt Bradley, there’s one drawback to all this: “We have hired directors based on their shorts. We are well aware of what they do. Unfortunately, with all the attention the short filmmakers are going to get this year, that means other people will become aware, too.”

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