The Celling of Sundance

Sundance Film Festival Report

"And please turn all your cellular phones to `off' and put your beepers on `vibrate.'"

Thus began every screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- with some spoken variation of this silly reminder just prior to the dimming of the house lights. This is what it has come to in this festival's 11th year of operation, during which time it has earned bragging rights as the country's most prestigious competition and display of the best of American independent filmmaking. With its ever-growing popularity and success, the 11-day-long event now seems less a festival than a three-ring circus. In this market atmosphere, screenings are attended as though they are product demonstrations, meetings are scheduled within the framework of meals, and promotional activity is disguised as ingenuity and largesse. It is here in Park City, Utah that cell phones are as indispensable as warm boots, as much fashion statement as power tool.

Here in the snowy mountain tops, where the 8,000-foot-high peaks bend phone signals as though flush with kryptonite ore, cellular phones seem more ubiquitous than tubes of lip moisturizer and rumpled tissues. Instantly, they define their bearers as "players," and the only position of greater power is to have a circle of assistants who do all the beeping and dialing for you. It sounds like sour grapes, I know; and it also sounds cliché. Hardly a report I've yet read about this year's festival fails to mention the cellulars as a key motif. And never forget that just because all the reporters say a thing's so, it doesn't mean that their observations are free of hyperbole and bias. But it does point to a growing observation of the marketplace the Sundance Film Festival has become.

What might once have been a scouting expedition for distribution and acquisition executives in search of diamonds in the rough, undiscovered beauties, or visions of future greatness now seems more a shopping expedition -- buyers don't intend to come home empty-handed, the only question is: How much? In recent years, independent filmmaking has become an increasingly bigger business, with significant, and potentially large, box-office potential and financial return. The Sundance Film Festival has also played a very large part in that development. This growing sophistication is also seen amongst the filmmakers marketing their wares and the audiences consuming the final product. Independent filmmaking has increasingly become an identifiable and quantifiable entity, as its cachet grows all the while.

Eleven years ago, Robert Redford and some associates began the first Sundance Film Festival (originally called the U.S. Film Festival) to recognize and celebrate independent filmmaking, to give it a home and an audience, and to ensure its vitality and future. Central to Sundance were concepts of things such as the "individual filmmaker," "artistic vision," the gritty romance of low-budget production, and the purity of work accomplished outside the Hollywood system. Underlying these sincere notions, however, was the generally held, bottom-line belief that the word "independent" was merely a classy euphemism for another, more damning word: "uncommercial." Yet a few of the indie success stories from those years, such as Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and She's Gotta Have It (1986), prove that the Cinderella model was never far from imagined possibility.

Then came sex, lies, and videotape, the movie that changed the ground rules forever. Steven Soderbergh's low-budget indie won the Audience Award (based on popular vote) at Sundance in 1989 and prompted an unprecedented bidding war amongst distributors anxious to sign it. A then-fledgling company named Miramax came out the winner. Later that spring, sex, lies, and videotape also picked up the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and then proceeded to do phenomenal business during its theatrical release. Its success not only helped establish Miramax as a leading independent distribution company, it also established Sundance as the unequivocal mother lode. The success of many other independent films since then -- such as My Own Private Idaho, Howards End, Slacker, The Piano, and Pulp Fiction -- only fuels the ongoing search for hidden treasure.

Perhaps in response to recent complaints that the Sundance lineup included too many films that already had representation and/or distribution in place, 1996's schedule seemed to showcase more films that had not yet been picked up... at least, not officially. That would help explain this festival's heightened sense of a marketplace atmosphere, the illusion that everyone had descended -- with a cellular -- upon this tiny resort community in order to close a deal (and, perhaps, ski).

Deals were made and announced daily. New record sums were set. In a heavily reported coup, Fine Line Features paid nearly $2.5 million for the Australian movie Shine, about a musical prodigy and the father who passes his neuroses on to the next generation. The purchase figure set a new sales record and the deal also spited the leading indie distributor Miramax Pictures (now owned by Disney), who thought they had a lock on the picture. After a couple days of press scandals and public shouting matches, it was announced that Disney's distribution arm, Buena Vista, would distribute Shine with Miramax in most of Europe, while Fine Line would retain North American rights. Of course, if one looked for history in regard to this tug of war, the trail might start at 1995's Sundance Festival when Miramax snatched away the Isaac Mizrahi documentary Unzipped from an unsuspecting Fine Line.

In very short order, $2.5 million began to look like loose change. Before things were over, the astonishing sum of $10 million was paid out to one of the festival's big crowd-pleasers, Care of the Spitfire Grill, a melodrama starring Alison Elliot, Ellen Burstyn, and Marcia Gay Harden, and directed by Lee David Zlatoff. In only two days, the festival's previous record had been quadrupled by Castle Rock Entertainment for a film that went on to win the Audience Award (based on popular vote) for dramatic feature.

Other factors affecting what was shown at the festival, no doubt, are related to offshoot Sundance Institute enterprises like the Screenwriters Lab and the Directors Lab. At least a half-dozen of the projects cultivated at these workshops were shown at the festival and proved to be popular with audiences and distributors. Pie in the Sky by Bryan Gordon and starring John Goodman already had New Line Cinema in place as distributor; others, like Lisa Krueger's Manny and Lo starring Mary Kay Place was picked up by Sony Classics; Nicole Holofcener's well-liked Walking and Talking by Miramax; and Paul Thomas Anderson's Sydney, starring Philip Baker Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Samuel L. Jackson, by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. Many other Institute projects are currently in production or various stages of national release (the recent Devil in a Blue Dress and the soon-to-be-released Bottle Rocket and Feeling Minnesota). Also due for premiere in select cable TV markets on February 29 is the Sundance Channel, a 24-hour, commercial-free network that will show titles from American and international independent films. Rick Linklater'sBefore Sunrise is scheduled for its inaugural evening.

Slamdance, a feisty upstart now in its second year of operation, also seems to be exerting a noticeable effect on the priorities of Sundance programmers. Originally a presentation of films rejected by Sundance, the Slamdance festival runs concurrently with Sundance with screenings scheduled at a local hotel. Sundance officials are definitely not amused by the counter-programming, but its presence calls into question definitions of "independent" filmmaking, budget and representation issues, and the mysteries of the selection process. Still, when Sundance darling Steven Soderbergh has a film which he produced -- the hilarious and wonderfully acted Daytrippers -- playing at Slamdance rather than Sundance, entree to the big leagues is clearly more than a simple matter of who you know. Slamdance describes itself as "a festival by filmmakers for filmmakers" with "a focus on first features." This year, over 450 features were submitted for Slamdance consideration, and a total of 25 were shown. Ironically, at that rate, Slamdance should soon face a new round of competition from disgruntled and rejected applicants. For festival-goers, the inclusion of Slamdance screenings adds an element of pure gluttony to an already heartbreaking schedule of determining which movies to see and which to exclude on any given day. Knowing that there's no physical way to see it all, the choices become more a process of elimination than inclusion.

It is no accident that Sundance organizers repeatedly characterize 1996's presentations as "edgier" and "more cutting edge." Without so much as saying anything directly, they clearly have heard the rumblings and seen the projections on alternate screens (a film programmer's version of "the writing on the wall"). Two of the evident strengths of this year's schedule were the number of films featuring strong female characters and melodramatic content, as well as the quality of the documentaries. Whether these generalities are due more to strategic planning or coincidence is a matter for conjecture. Overall, Sundance received over 700 submissions this year, approximately 500 features and 200 documentaries. Those numbers represent an increase of approximately 30 percent from the year before, which itself had experienced an additional 25 percent increase from the year preceding that. About 120 films were selected for the festival; in competition were 18 features and 16 documentaries. New to this year's program was a showcase titled American Spectrum, which presented out-of-competition screenings of films by 20 first-time independent directors.

Texas-related filmmaking was well-represented in Park City. One of the first movies to be picked up for distribution (by First Look, which also handled the successful The Secret of Roan Inish) was johns, a movie about Santa Monica Boulevard hustlers and their personal relationships that stars David Arquette and Austinite Lukas Haas (Witness, Rambling Rose), who clearly comes into his own with this picture. Two popular audience hits were the Dallas-bred-and-lensed movie Late Bloomers by Julia and Gretchen Dyer, a light-hearted drama about two women who discover their love for each other over basketball and PTA meetings; and Dan Ireland's The Whole Wide World, which was shot last summer in central Texas and stars Vincent D'Onofrio as Robert E. Howard, the pulp writer who created Conan the Barbarian, and tracks his poignant romance with Novalyne Price, who is played most engagingly by Renee Zellweger. Austin was represented at Slamdance by Steve Bilich's Ruta Wakening, which features a veritable panoply of Austin downtown figures who intersect via coffee and angels.

Have I mentioned snow? And wind, for that matter. Oh, hell, let's not pussyfoot around. The correct word for what I need to describe is: blizzard. Actually, blizzards. That's blizzards, as in more than one, and even more than two. When you get right down to it, it was more than three or four but, hey, you stop counting after a certain point. I mean, why bother counting things like 92mph wind gusts -- especially if you have any intention of going outside?

Locals were saying that it had been at least 50 years since Park City had experienced anything like this current white-out. "Perfect ski conditions" trumpeted all the newscasters. At least perfect for those crazy enough not to mind all the wind and near-zero visibility. So, adding to the approximately 9,000 film fest attendees crammed into the cozy resort community, ski nuts poured in on top of everything else. Transportation became hellish; the festival shuttle buses were overwhelmed by the population mass combined with the sheer difficulty of getting around. All those cellular phone toters were also invariably driving rented cars and, meanwhile, the snow just kept coming.

I could go on and on here about the weather. But the only point that really needs to be made, however, is that in January, blizzards in Utah are about as common as cedar fever in Austin. You work around it or get out. Yet weather conditions cut back on the feasibility of seeing as many films as one would have liked. And the ever-growing number of visitors made the ability to score tickets into a modern art form. Standing in lines waiting for tickets, waiting for buses, and insurmountable commute times for implementing fallback plans -- all these remain, for me, key memories of Sundance '96. All these are problems that will continue as the festival size rampantly outgrows its infrastructure. Yet I also remember the excitement and camaraderie of strangers huddling together hoping to find magic in the dark.

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