Cinema Olympics

World sections get competitive

Foreign pics have tended to be overshadowed by U.S. indies at Sundance, but the fest has been making some aggressive moves to change that. Chief among them is this year’s decision to make the World Cinema and World Cinema Documentary sections competitive. “The simple fact about competitions is that the media pays attention to them,” explains fest topper Geoff Gilmore. “We very much see international films as a part of what we do, but we also looked at how to give international films at Sundance more visibility.”

In the past, foreign entries could only vie for an audience award that almost always went to a more commercially minded pic with a distrib already in place. The presence of a jury ensures that a more diverse group of films will share in this added visibility. Additionally, fest staff winnowed the field down to 16 World Cinema pics and 12 World Documentaries (from 28 and nine, respectively, last year) and slotted them into more primetime screening times and more accessible venues.

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Two of the most successful films to emerge from last year’s fest are Spanish-lingo pics “Maria Full of Grace” and “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Neither film played in the World Cinema section due to U.S. funding, but their success demonstrates that Sundance can be a viable place to preem a bona-fide foreign-lingo crowdpleaser.

“I think a breakthrough film can come from any section,” says Newmarket partner Bob Berney, who has a penchant for foreign fare and distributed 2003 World Cinema audience honoree “Whale Rider.” “By highlighting world cinema, critics and media will feel like they don’t only have to cover (U.S.) competition films.”

“Sundance makes foreign films cool,” says Wellspring’s Marie-Therese Guirgis, distributor of past Sundance entries such as “Tarnation” and “Madame Sata.” “But I still think it will be hard for them to get world premieres, because they’re not known for that. There are four or five other places to go buy foreign films, but only one real big one to buy American independent films.”

While most distribs agree that Park City, Utah, is a great place to help launch a foreign pic into the U.S. marketplace, overseas filmmakers still tend to shoot for Cannes, Berlin or Toronto to premiere their pics.

Gilmore counters that Sundance has no interest in competing with Cannes and other auteur-driven fests. “We’re not the comprehensive international festival like Toronto or Berlin are,” he explains. “We see ourselves as an American festival with a global reach.”

For some foreign filmmakers, these more broadly international fests might not be their cup of tea anyway. “We’d rather be at Sundance than Cannes,” says Argentinean producer-scribe Brian Maya, whose crime pic “Palermo Hollywood” will preem in this year’s World Dramatic Competition. “We’re not so much of the school of Godard and Truffaut, which is rare in Argentina. We worship American independent cinema.”

That said, Sundance does boast a handful of foreign auteur heavyweights this year. For example, new films from Werner Herzog and Lars von Trier will unspool in Park City, though both pics are in English and set in the United States. Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” competes in the World Documentary Competition, while Thomas Vinterberg-directed “Dear Wendy,” from a script by von Trier, plays in Premieres. “Grizzly” was backed by Discovery Docs and gets a U.S. release via Lions Gate, whereas “Wendy” is still seeking Stateside distribution.

As U.S. deals have become a huge part of what Sundance is about, fest reps maintain that this isn’t necessarily the aim for World Cinema entries. “Last year we had a Korean documentary (‘Repatriation’) which won the freedom of expression award,” explains Diane Weyermann, director of Sundance’s documentary film program. “It wasn’t picked up for U.S. distribution but it was picked up in Korea and it was an extraordinary success in Korea.”

When it comes down to it, Sundance’s biggest appeal to foreign filmmakers might well be the same one that attracts their U.S. counterparts: the festival’s track record as a springboard to Hollywood. This is something that the fest doesn’t shy away from either, as World Cinema coordinator Caroline Libresco makes plain: “Our goal for these filmmakers is to come to Sundance and make contacts in the American industry.”

This hope is shared by filmmakers like “Palermo Hollywood’s” Maya and director Eduardo Pinto as well as Oz helmer Greg McLean, who wear their Hollywood ambitions on their sleeves.

“Many filmmakers like myself see the festival as a great opportunity to canvas interest in follow-up projects,” says McLean, writer-director of horror pic “Wolf Creek,” which has already scored a lucrative pre-fest distribution deal with Dimension. “The proximity to the power base of the American film industry means it’s easier to follow up on relationships that are made at the festival.”