One of the great mysteries for young filmmakers, other than how to get a studio deal, is how films are chosen for prestigious festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival.
“There’s a myth about an inhouse selection committee,” says Geoff Gilmore, the Sundance festival’s programming director, “that films get in the festival because they are made by friends or political choices. Most of the programmed films are by brand-new filmmakers we’ve never had contact with.”
In fact, Gilmore says he saw some 300 independent productions during a five-month period toward the end of last year. Before joining Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute last summer, he saw as many as 700 films per annum in a 10-year stint as head of film and television programming for the UCLA Archives.
Honcho ‘not cynical’
Despite the intensive exposure, Gilmore swears he’s “not cynical about films. You try to let a film succeed on its own merits. You try to compare it to itself for the things it’s trying to do. Does it succeed? Is it taking risks? Does it fail? Even failing may make it better than a film that takes no risks at all.”
A total of 85 films will be shown in five theaters in the small mountain town of Park City Jan. 17 to 27, as well as in the Sundance Institute screening room at Redford’s Sundance Resort and a Salt Lake City theater.
Of those films, 31 are in the American Independent competition category – 16 dramatic pics and 15 documentaries. Also scheduled are salutes to Robert Altman and the late Michael Powell, new independent films from Japan and Mexico, premieres, special screenings, short films and seminars.
Gilmore programmed most of those himself, though competition director Alberto Garcia is primarily responsible for the 31 films vying for awards. “We divide things up and we both look at them,” Gilmore says. “But ultimately I am responsible for all of the programming in the festival.”
There are also concerns about the way Gilmore and Garcia watch movies. “I now see 10 or even 12 films – in part – in one day,” Gilmore explains. “And the filmmakers are very worried that their film wasn’t given a fair shake because I didn’t see the whole thing. Sometimes, after a certain amount of time, you know it just isn’t appropriate. But somebody sees each film all the way through at least once.”
“We’re not trying to do a narrow kind of film festival,” he adds. “Given the diversity and scope of independent cinema, we look at films that are extremely commercial and very accessible to general audiences, and we look at the esoteric and more difficult films.”