Sundance solutions ready for close-up

By now, the powers-that-be at the Sundance Film Festival have had their annual gloves-off post-mortem evaluating what went right and wrong with this year’s event. I’m not privy to what went down with Robert Redford, Geoffrey Gilmore and the rest of the staff, and while I imagine the subjects of over-crowding, over-partying and over-swagging came up — this was the year Redford himself told me he could imagine the festival one day outgrowing Park City — I cannot imagine that, as it goes in Washington, D.C., any decisions were made to decisively stem the growth of a beast that seems to expand of its own accord.

Post-Sundance discussions this year have tended not to focus on the quality of the films so much as on the zoolike/crazy/difficult/exasperating/exhausting nature of the whole experience, which is not how it should be for a festival that is generally very well run. A number of commentators have weighed in, most cheekily so my colleague Dana Harris, with suggestions as to what Sundance might do differently to reduce the congestion and sheer weight of extra-festival events and hangers-on, and no doubt we’ll see some minor adjustments next year.

As a Sundance veteran of 20 consecutive festivals, I’ve seen the event evolve from its earlier down-home incarnation as the U.S. Film Festival, where you could meet all the filmmakers casually on the street or in restaurants and where my friends and I could ski every day and not start screenings until 3 p.m., through its famously formative period as the launch pad for Soderbergh, Tarantino and all the rest, to its current status as the January focal point for the BlackBerry and Red Bull crowd. I have no illusions about trying to return to the fest’s good old days, whenever precisely those might have been, but after thinking about it long and hard I’ve identified what, for me, represents the festival’s biggest sore spot, and have come up with a radical solution to the problem itself and related ills:

Eliminate the Premieres section.

Ostensibly, the Premieres consist of bigger-budget, higher-profile films than are commonly found in the competition categories. They often already have American distributors. Even more often, they have significant, even famous names attached to them, be they actors, directors or producers. In theory, Premieres exist to provide the festival with somewhat more mainstream and larger films than fit elsewhere, and to offer a venue to familiar Sundance names (Richard Linklater, Gregg Araki, Rebecca Miller, et al.) who have outgrown the competition.

In practice, however, what the Premieres have come to provide is an excuse for glitz, hype and movie stars — and, more often than not, lousy films. After featuring 18 pictures in 2003, the section was unaccountably expanded to 24 titles last year and this, creating far too many slots than can ever be filled with good or even decent films. For too many years, I made a point of seeing a lot of Premieres titles, lured by vaguely promising talent or enticements created by Sundance’s invariably raving catalog blurbs. Year after year, I was consistently disappointed, wishing I had checked out a more obscure competition or foreign title instead.

My feelings about the Premieres probably began taking shape two years ago at the first screening of the hopeless Bob Dylan starrer “Masked and Anonymous,” which was delayed enormously because all the talent hadn’t shown up on time, and then proved utterly unworthy of the wait. My convictions deepened last year when as silly and pointedly commercial a film as “The Butterfly Effect” was shown for no apparent reason other than for the presence of Ashton Kutcher atop the cast. At least half the Premieres titles would never be shown by any respectable film festival other than Sundance.

Other than greatly reducing the number of time-wasting films, eradicating (or severely shrinking) the Premieres section would have the additional benefit of reducing the number of stars at the festival, which in turn would minimize the number of entourages and heat-seeking hangers-on who come to Sundance for no professional reason. This, in turn, would have the enormously ameliorating effect of reducing the crowding that everyone agrees has become the festival’s biggest problem.

Doing away with the Premieres does not mean the best films that have historically been shown in the section would no longer have a place at Sundance. Major new indie-style pictures could still be premiered in opening night, midfest and perhaps final Friday slots. Like Cannes and other big international fests, Sundance could choose to present certain films out of competition, which would make room for the likes of “Inside Deep Throat,” “The Matador” and “Lackawanna Blues” this year and “Riding Giants” and “The Machinist” last year.

And this year’s creation of a World Cinema competition would make feasible the addition of a small noncompeting adjunct that would provide a way to show such recent foreign-made Premieres as “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Kung Fu Hustle,” “The Dreamers” and “3-Iron,” among others.

If fest toppers just can’t bring themselves to cut loose the Premieres altogether, the section should at least be reduced by half, to one film per night. Of this year’s 24 titles, 12 at the outside were good enough to be considered of international festival quality; last year, I’d put the total of decent Premieres at only eight, and in 2003 perhaps six of 18 were presentable. If they’re really wedded to the section, another option would be showing Premieres only in Salt Lake City, and perhaps also in Los Angeles.

Rather than just putting a lid on growth, this sort of fix would palpably address the problems of fest overload at its roots. It also would have the salutary effect of restoring an element of purity to the festival. Redford’s perennial mantra is that Sundance is “for the filmmakers,” but in recent years it’s seemed more about sponsors, swag and celebrities. If Redford wants to live up to his motto, pulling back on the Premieres represents a way to turn the spotlight back on the people who have done the dirty work in the trenches to make truly independent films and away from those who are just along for the Sundance ride.

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