×

Grindhouse meets arthouse

Sundance Film Festival 2013

Severed ears, sadomaso-chism, bloody beatings and incest — though it sounds like the stuff of B-movie exploitation fare, such outre offerings are actually the hallmarks of Sundance’s most acclaimed and prestigious entries.

While American independent cinema has often been identified with serious dramas made for “sophisticated” audiences — think early breakouts such as “Ruby in Paradise” or “You Can Count on Me” — sex and violence have always dominated Sundance’s programs, from “Blood Simple” to “Reservoir Dogs” and “Happiness” to “Push.”

In fact, for independent art films, sensationalistic subject matter may be even more necessary as a way to be heard in the ever-competitive marketplace.

“Provocative subject matter is more important than ever,” says Mark Gill, president of Millennium Films, which is unveiling the pornstar biopic “Lovelace” at this year’s festival. “It’s so hard to get people off the couch, so you really have to have a reason to create immediacy and urgency. It’s helpful to have a hook, and the more provocative, the better.”

Gill, who worked on the release of Larry Clark’s “Kids” in 1995, says independent films have the benefit of being able to go much farther and push more buttons than studio pics. “You’re absolutely allowed to be edgier,” he says. “You have an audience that’s willing to see the dark side of things as well as the light.”

But backers have to be careful not to overplay these films’ unrated elements. “What you don’t want is something perceived as porn, so people would never see it,” says Gill.

Most salacious-seeming indie pics are, of course, more artful in their presentations. “Lovelace,” for example, promises to be a more dramatic rendition of the performer’s rise and fall; likewise, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut “Don Jon’s Addiction” is being described as both “crass” and “startlingly sincere,” exploring lessons about love and life as much as sexual escapades, according to Sundance organizers.

For that reason, IFC Films’ Ryan Werner says when handling a hot-button film, they still market it as an “art” movie. When releasing Michael Winterbottom’s unflinchingly violent 2010 Sundance entry “The Killer Inside Me,” they tried to keep the marketing “classy and true to the Jim Thompson source material,” he says. “While we embraced the controversy, it was not sold as an exploitation film.”

Still, “At the end of the day, the movie does have a lot of sex and violence, and I think that’s a great selling point,” says Werner, adding that “The Killer Inside Me” is one of the company’s top-selling titles on VOD — where licentious films have particularly thrived.

Independent filmmakers don’t necessarily see their films as extreme or confrontational, however. They often use sex and violence as a means to an end, or as backdrops for deeper psychological portraits.

Winterbottom says his new Sundance film, “The Look of Love,” which follows infamous British impresario Paul Raymond, who oversaw an empire of gentlemen’s clubs and erotic magazines, isn’t about sex at all. “His world involves naked women, and it’s connected to sex, but the story of the film is really about his relationship with the three women in his life,” Winterbottom says. “It’s actually a classic morality tale.”

Similarly, Antonio Campos, the director of “Afterschool” and “Simon Killer” and a producer on “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” acknowledges that even though the films include sex and violence, “The goal isn’t to glorify anything but to try and understand what happens when real people do bad things and how do they deal with it.”

And if he and other indie filmmakers tend to “tread in murky waters,” as Campos puts it, it’s not for their salacious aspects but “because these stories and characters interest us and pose a challenge that we want to take on.”

One of the most controversial films at last year’s Sundance, Craig Zobel’s “Compliance,” sparked angry post-screening discussions, with audience members accusing Zobel of misogyny and exploiting the movie’s young star, Dreama Walker, who appears partially nude. Zobel says the film is not exploitive, but, conveying a crucial distinction, “is about exploitation.”

When done right, argues Zobel, sensationalistic films aren’t made simply to provoke, but to advance an idea. “Maybe people watch simply because ‘sex sells,'” he says, “but hopefully they leave and start a conversation.”

Sundance Film Fesitval 2013
Filmmakers flex options | Target titles | Grindhouse meets arthouse | Labs offer Mid East voice lessons | Five’s who’ll thrive

More Scene

  • Angler Los Angeles

    Angler Is L.A.'s Major New Seafood Destination

    San Francisco transplant Angler is set to make a major splash in Los Angeles, as Joshua Skenes’ innovative seafood-focused restaurant opens in the somewhat unlikely location of the Beverly Center. Angler is the latest and the most ambitious restaurant to join a fresh crop of spots, including Cal Mare and Yardbird, on the recently refurbished [...]

  • Bette Midler

    Bette Midler Set for Special Performance at New York Pride (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bette Midler is set to appear at New York’s Pride Main Event this Saturday (June 29) at the Javits Center. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, she’ll perform a song accompanied by composer Marc Shaiman, of “Hairspray” and “Mary Poppins Returns” fame. Her stage time is set for 11 p.m. Also scheduled to [...]

  • Magic Johnson, Larry Bird

    Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Robin Roberts Honored at 2019 NBA Awards

    The NBA went Hollywood on Monday night, mixing basketball legends with a star-studded list of presenters including Samuel L. Jackson, Tiffany Haddish and “This Is Us” star Justin Hartley at the 2019 NBA Awards. Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal hosted the third annual award show, which aired live on TNT, kicking things off with a surprise [...]

  • Naomi Watts and Gretchen Carlson'The Loudest

    ‘The Loudest Voice’ Stars Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe Talk Roger Ailes

    Roger Ailes may have been the force behind the creation of Fox News, but the late newsman’s legacy will forever be his atrocious sexual harassment of several of the network’s female anchors and producers. Showtime premiered its new limited series “The Loudest Voice,” which chronicles Ailes’ rise and fall, on Monday night at the Paris [...]

  • Billy Eichner Power of Pride Variety

    Billy Eichner on Taylor Swift's 'Calm Down' Backlash

    When Taylor Swift released her “You Need to Calm Down” music video, it seemed like every member of the LGBTQ in Hollywood was included — except for Billy Eichner. “I’m still not gay enough for Taylor Swift — or too gay — I don’t know what it is,” Eichner joked at Variety’s Power of Pride [...]

  • Bebe Rexha

    Mumford and Sons, Sting, Ciara, Bebe Rexha Light Up Cannes Lions

    There was no shortage of excellent music at the 2019 edition of Cannes Lion. The international gathering of creatives drew top music brands – among them: Spotify, Live Nation, iHeartRadio, SiriusXM/Pandora, VEVO and Universal Music Group – and a slew of well-known acts to stages across the Croissette, to villas above the city and onto [...]

  • Patrick Wilson

    Patrick Wilson, Mckenna Grace on Scary Stories From 'Annabelle Comes Home' Set

    Tales of spooky occurrences on the sets of horror movies like “The Exorcist” and “Poltergeist” have circulated for years, and it looks like “The Conjuring” franchise is following in their footsteps in that regard. The cast of “Annabelle Comes Home” shared their unnerving stories from set at the film’s premiere on Thursday night at the Regency [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content