Fest booked too many deal-seeking hybrids

Robert Redford and Geoff Gilmore need to make a course correction at Sundance.

By most standards the sprawling fest is a roaring success: Sundance is the envy of other fests, with scores of English-language premieres and stars in attendance. It showcases the best in indie and world cinema. It’s a must-attend magnet event for the North American film industry. It makes money. And it’s a huge venue for rookie filmmakers and indie-financed movies seeking distribution.

Redford likes to take the high road with the films that have gone through the Sundance Lab, like Alex Rivera’s innovative Spanish-language sci-fi film “Sleep Dealer,” or the huge number of filmmakers who crossed over this year from theater, music, poetry and art.

“It’s about the filmmakers” is always the Redford Sundance mantra.

But this year’s fest added more premieres to its lineup, with 24 gala showings over last year’s 17. And while there are always a few that fail to ignite at any given fest, this year’s Sundance crop seemed to be heavy on Hollywood-indie hybrids that were neither fish nor fowl.

The criterion for Sundance admission should not be the presence of a major star either in front or behind the camera. At this point does Sundance really need a Tom Hanks or Robert De Niro to come to Park City? There are stars aplenty.

Many attendees at Sundance this year wondered if Sundance shouldn’t return to its roots as a curator of emerging talent around the world and place less emphasis on playing Hollywood powerbroker. Some wonder if sales reps Cinetic Media and CAA, which each brought more than 16 films to the fest, have become a heavy influence on Gilmore and his team’s selection process. Such films as Playtone’s “The Great Buck Howard,” starring Tom and Colin Hanks, which was passed on by the studios before its debut at Sundance, and 2929 Entertainment’s $20-million anti-Hollywood comedy “What Just Happened,” starring DeNiro, Bruce Willis and Sean Penn, seemed to stick out like sore thumbs at this year’s fest and were excoriated on the Internet for doing so.

By fest’s end, the laundry list of indie-studio hybrids with stars failed to rouse Sundance enthusiasm in any quarter — fest audiences, critics or buyers.

Some sample quotes from early Sundance reviews:

  •  “The Great Buck Howard,” starring John Malkovich, Tom and Colin Hanks: “… it doesn’t have any insights into the art, and, considering that mentalism deals with issues of psychology, personality and influence, the film’s inability to use this subject matter to create more dramatic situations for its characters is pretty disappointing.” — Filmmaker’s Scott Macaulay

  •  “Blind Date,” directed by and starring Stanley Tucci: “The whole thing seemed so theatrical (in the Off Broadway sense), and was completely devoid of cinematic drama. After the first 15 minutes went by, members of the press started to leave the theater like a flock of birds. I decided to leave around the 35-minute mark.” — Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta

  •  “Downloading Nancy,” starring Maria Bello and Jason Patric: “Performances are cranked up to red-line neurotic levels, while production values intently contribute to creating an artificially bleak world where it’s understandable scarcely anyone would want to spend time, even for the duration of this movie.” — Variety‘s Todd McCarthy

  •  “Bottle Shock,” starring Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman and Chris Pine: “Director Randol Miller has assembled an amazing and talented cast, but he uses them on a disjointed script, which never seems to find its focus.” — Cinemablend’s Josh Tyler

Every festival, whether Toronto, Cannes or Berlin, makes deals with distribution suppliers to show certain films in exchange for getting others. It’s the nature of the beast. There’s always an opening-night film, or a few launchpad premieres. (This year’s Sundance opener, the Brit comedy “In Bruges,” was better than most.) It goes with the territory. At a breakfast meeting with the Toronto fest’s outgoing programmer Noah Cowan and incoming Cameron Bailey, they agreed that for every fest there’s a cutoff on how many of those compromises should be made.

Gilmore and his team should remain focused on booking the best possible movies, their future distribution potential be damned. Every year, it’s the critically praised “In the Bedroom,” “Capturing the Friedmans,” “Junebug,” “Waitress,” “The Squid and the Whale” or “Once” that wind up giving Sundance its good name, not Hollywood refugees looking to make money back on their investment.

“I don’t think festivals should be judged by the sales,” says Picturehouse prexy Bob Berney. “That’s not what it’s about. If it’s small, good titles, that’s great, too.”

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