Sundance Film Festival 2012

Sundance is always about the next hot young thing, whether the intense doe-eyed actress or audacious firsttime auteur.

But there’s no shortage of returning filmmakers to this year’s festival, from a half-dozen in dramatic competition (Ira Sachs, Ry Russo-Young, James Ponsoldt, Michael Mohan, Todd Louiso and So Yong Kim) to old-timers Spike Lee and Stephen Frears. What role does the festival play for them?

While spotlighting up-and-comers shouldn’t necessarily come at the expense of cultivating the careers of more seasoned filmmakers, there is the concern that Sundance is better at breaking new talent than serving vets.

“It’s a festival of underdogs,” says Anthony Bregman, producer of the Frears film “Lay the Favorite” as well as last year’s “Our Idiot Brother,” the fourth feature by Jesse Peretz. “And if you have a film by an Oscar-winning director with Bruce Willis in it, there might be the perception that maybe there’s something wrong with it if it’s in Sundance.

“Sundance and the indie world is not just about the movies, it’s about the stories behind the movies,” continues Bregman. “And the same movie, had it been directed by a master like Frears vs. a 22-year-old NYU grad, will be received in different ways.”

But Sundance honcho John Cooper says the festival is specifically built to accommodate more seasoned auteurs. “That’s what the Premieres section is for,” he says.

Still, perception may be a problem for vets, as the fest has hosted plenty of high-profile films with name directors and casts that have tanked (i.e. “What Just Happened?” “The Great Buck Howard,” “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “The Informers”). So rather than be perceived as being in a rut or slumming it back in the indie world, a number of prominent former Sundance breakouts — i.e. Quentin Tarantino, Todd Solondz, Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers — have sought out berths at Cannes, Toronto or Venice, where their presence is now seen as a more natural fit.

Countless others, from Christopher Nolan to Paul Thomas Anderson, used Sundance as a launchpad on their way to big-budget studio gigs. Though he acknowledges that tendency, Cooper notes he’s seeing more and more filmmakers staying in the indie realm longer. And those are filmmakers whom Sundance will continue to support — as long as the movies are good, he says: “We select by films first, and if a filmmaker makes a film that’s not successful, we’re probably not going to show it.”

Still, the Sundance “narrative” remains all about newness. Every year, the press rallies around stories of fresh-faced talents (Brit Marling, Elizabeth Olsen) and rising helmers (Sean Durkin, Jeff Nichols). Last year, how many journalists emphasized the returns of Kelly Reichardt, Christopher Munch and Gregg Araki, all longtime guests of the fest?

“When we go out there with one of Richard Linklater’s movies, it does feel like all the energy pools around discoveries,” admits Cinetic Media’s John Sloss.

Still, as “the best market for American independent films,” adds Sloss, there’s no place quite like it, for both newcomers and old hats, as a way to garner industry attention and sales. Consider the hoopla over Kevin Smith’s “Red State” last year, or the success of Lisa Cholodenko’s fourth feature, “The Kids Are All Right,” in 2010.

Lee, at Sundance this year with his 20th dramatic feature, “Red Hook Summer,” agrees. “Sundance is the premier festival in America to get a film sold,” he says. “I financed this film myself, and I want people to see it. We need a distributor, so we feel that Sundance is the best place for it.”

But not everyone believes Sundance is as equitable to its more seasoned participants.

“With the (corporate) relationships that Sundance has continued to embellish, I think it’s excluding a lot of really indie work and indie directors,” says Cheryl Dunye, whose HBO feature “Stranger Inside” played at Sundance in 2001, but her subsequent film “The Owls” (2010) premiered in Berlin, as will her latest, “Mommy Is Coming.”

Likewise Jon Jost, who had four features at the fest in the 1990s, recalls most of his work in the past decade has been rejected, or was not submitted. He also blames “Sundance’s turn toward commercialization,” and, instead, favors foreign fests like Rotterdam.

But Ira Sachs, who debuted at Sundance with 1996′s “The Delta,” won the 2005 competish with “Forty Shades of Blue” and returns this year with “Keep the Lights On,” says the fest is still supportive of truly indie filmmakers over the long haul — those who show “a commitment to a certain bold and idiosyncratic approach in and of itself,” he says. “That’s the premise on which Sundance was founded, thank God.”

Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth maintains the festival’s commitment to work from vets like Sachs at this year’s fest. “Those are filmmakers who are making fiercely independent films,” he says, “and truly represent a voice that Sundance is all about.”

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