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Hollywood Invasion

Has the Sundance Film Festival become too big -- a victim of its own success?



Over the past several years, Sundance has been accused of being so many things so persistently—too Hollywood, too commercial, too big, too much—that the descriptions have become surgically attached. The jokes are easy, and the stereotypes are fun. The stories of those who know the festival best, however, make it considerably more difficult to pin down the reality of Sundance in its third decade.

As Sundance 2001 rolls into town Jan. 18?28, how do we define what it is, or what it has become? Is it a showcase for mavericks and risk-takers, or a sort of minor-league system for mainstream Hollywood? Is it an event dedicated to filmmakers, or is it a place where the films themselves have become a secondary story to the deals made there? Is it a blessing for the state, or a curse for an overwhelmed city and all those who attend?

“It’s like the blind men and the elephant,” suggests Sundance co-director Geoffrey Gilmore. “It depends on what end of it you’re grabbing.”

No criticism of Sundance has been more often repeated than the notion that it no longer represents a truly independent alternative to Hollywood filmmaking—that it has become too focused on the commercial potential of the films it presents. Films in the 1999 Dramatic Competition featured such recognizable names as Val Kilmer, Ally Sheedy, William H. Macy and Tori Spelling; in 2000, Heather Graham, Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, Aidan Quinn and Matthew Broderick all appeared in competition films.

Lory Smith has seen what he believes a significant shift in the kinds of films shown at Sundance, and he has seen it from the inside. Smith was a member of the festival staff for 20 years, serving as director of programming (1981-1985) and competition director (1978-79, 1986-1988). In 1998, Smith left Sundance and wrote about his experiences with the festival in Party in a Box: The Story of the Sundance Film Festival.

“Today, [Sundance] is a Hollywood feeding machine,” Smith says. “That is a very unfortunate turn of events. I think the festival could have worked harder to maintain a sense of real independent film. Somewhere, the emphasis turned to celebrities and stars.”

Newsday film critic John Anderson also turned his Sundance experience—in his case, as an attendee and member of the press—into a book, Sundancing: Hanging Out and Listening In at America’s Most Influential Film Festival. Like Smith, Anderson has noticed a shift in festival programming from grit to gloss.

“Increasingly, you see films at Sundance with bigger names—some hook other than the movie itself,” he says. “You know they blew most of their budget getting one second-tier star for their movie.

“I think Redford genuinely has the highest motives,” he adds, “but they’re victims of their own success in a way. Because they get the attention they get, they have to conform to certain expectations.”

Sundance’s Gilmore, not surprisingly, sees the evolution in festival programming in very different terms. “It’s silly to argue that [the festival] is not a different creature,” he notes, “because the world it represents is a different creature. But there’s a perception that it’s no longer a festival for first-time filmmakers, or that it’s only a place for films that already are being distributed. To suggest that we’ve left our original purpose behind, that just isn’t the case.”

Some of the statistics from this year’s festival seem to support Gilmore’s contentions. Of the 114 feature films being shown at Sundance 2001—including those in the higher-profile Premieres section—only 13 already have theatrical distribution deals in place. First-time feature directors are behind the camera for 36 of the festival’s features.

“Will there be films in the festival that are by their nature commercial?” Gilmore asks rhetorically. “Yes. One of the things that has happened in the world of independent film is that we have a lot of work produced for mainstream audiences—films that broaden the definition of what independent film is.”

Gilmore adds that Sundance has changed the whole notion of what constitutes a commercially viable independent film. “[The festival] has expanded the envelope of what’s commercial. Years ago, certain kinds of work—ethnically specific, gay and lesbian—you would have had a lot of people in the distribution industry say, by their very nature those films aren’t commercial. There’s a changing sense now of what’s commercial.”

Gilmore’s perspective is shared by nationally syndicated film critic Roger Ebert. An attendee at seven previous festivals, Ebert believes Sundance is simply seeing the effects of a successful mission. “[Sundance] helped launch the [American] indie film movement, then turned commercial to mirror the movement’s success,” he says. “An indie who works for Hollywood can still have the spirit, as directors from [Robert] Altman to Soderbergh demonstrate.”

To an extent, even Anderson agrees, though he wonders whether the commercial nature of some Sundance entries is a chicken-or-the-egg proposition. “Sundance can only choose the films that are submitted or are available,” he says. “If filmmakers are looking at Sundance asking, ‘What kind of film does Sundance want?’ that can affect what’s available. They seem calculated sometimes to be the kind of film acceptable to a certain demographic or a distributor’s taste.”

Even if broader commercial acceptability may be the goal of certain filmmakers, it’s by no means clear that they’re succeeding. While certain years have seen Sundance films achieve noteworthy commercial success—including the 1999, $140 million box office phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project—there has been no steady trend toward dramatic competition films finding larger audiences. In fact, the 1999 dramatic competition slate saw the lowest combined theatrical gross in six years—this in a year where 13 of the 16 competition films saw at least some level of theatrical distribution (see accompanying graph).

“It’s sort of a no-win situation for us,” Gilmore says. “We’re ‘too commercial,’ yet the press looks critically on a film that comes out of Sundance and isn’t [commercially successful]. Do we say we had a good year in ’99 because Blair Witch was a success, or a bad year in 2000 because Girlfight [co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize] wasn’t? It’s absurd.”

Indeed, press coverage of Sundance has shaped much of the way the festival is perceived by the public. If anything is certain to be part of Sundance coverage in the media, it’s the deals that were made there. As Lory Smith puts it, “The story becomes what films have been purchased, and for how much.”

“People should talk about films because they’re provocative or interesting,” Gilmore argues, “not because they’ve been bought or sold. We have journalists running around trying to find out what films have been sold rather than telling me what films they loved.”

Still, some observers contend the festival is not doing enough to deal with the reality that Sundance is now inextricably linked to the commercial aspect of American independent film. “The reason people want to go there is because it’s a market. But the festival refuses to acknowledge that,” Anderson says. “It’s like an ostrich with its head in the sand.”

“It’s Not for the Filmmakers Anymore”

If anyone benefits from a more commercially oriented Sundance, it’s the filmmakers. Yet plenty of debate remains over whether or not Sundance still is, as Redford so often contends, “about the filmmakers.” Publicists, agents, attorneys, distribution representatives and other film industry professionals fill many screening seats, only to make quick exits in mid-film to make a deal. Every Park City club becomes the location for an evening party sponsored by Miramax, or the Independent Film Channel, or Hugo Boss. At times, the presence of actual filmmakers feels incidental, as though the festival could continue at its madcap pace without a single director in sight.

Gilmore is quite clear about Sundance’s stance on the subject of who the festival is for. “We are a filmmaker festival,” he says. “We support filmmakers.”

Filmmakers themselves are somewhat divided over the extent to which the festival practices what it preaches. In Sundancing, Anderson quotes director David Riker expressing disappointment over Sundance’s missed opportunities to provide a sense of community to the gathered filmmakers. “During the festival,” Anderson comments, “filmmakers with a film to sell don’t even have the chance to see other movies.”

Writer/director Gavin O’Connor, whose film Tumbleweeds premiered and was purchased for distribution at Sundance in 1999, recalls taking advantage of several opportunities to interact with other filmmakers. “The one great thing [Sundance] did was getting all the filmmakers together,” O’Connor recalls. “A lot of times we were in buses driving somewhere, trading war stories, rooting for each other. There are some filmmakers I met there that I follow their careers now.

“But it’s a two-way street, because filmmakers want to sell their movies. I think it’s hypocritical of all the filmmakers who complain that there are too many industry people there. There’s no question that it changed my life. I could be home shoveling snow right now in New York.”

Gilmore puts it more bluntly: “The nicest thing you can do for an independent filmmaker is get them out of debt.”

Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed the 2000 Sundance Grand Jury Prize co-winner You Can Count on Me, also expresses satisfaction over his opportunities to interact with other filmmakers. “The official events are nice because it makes you feel there’s an overseeing body that thinks you’re important,” Lonergan says. “It did make me feel a little bit like a part of a community.

“I was pleasantly surprised that the idea that it was actually a film festival was what came to the fore. I’m really glad I stayed the whole time.”

Gilmore emphasizes Sundance’s interest in providing filmmakers with chances to do more than make deals. “We say that one of the things you have to do is make an effort to get outside of that insular world of being squired around by P.R. representatives—to actually go and talk to people about their films.”

“For me,” Gilmore says, “what becomes dispiriting is a filmmaker coming up to me and saying they haven’t seen a single film the whole week, as though that’s the way it should be—that they were too busy meeting with agents and distribution people to do anything else. People can come out really electrified, really inspired to go out and do better work.”

Before they get to the festival, however, filmmakers must contend with some of its less-than-filmmaker-friendly edicts. For example, Sundance requires that films in the competition categories be American premieres, which means they can’t have screened at any other American film festivals.

“I don’t think the premiere requirement serves any purpose,” says Anderson, further noting that Sundance competition films are allowed at international festivals, as this year’s dramatic competition entry Memento (see sidebar) did at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.

“They [Sundance] have acted sort of like the Microsoft of the independent film world,” Lory Smith says. “Some of the edicts they’ve made have been not helpful for other festivals or for filmmakers. They’ve had to put all their eggs in the Sundance basket.”

Some filmmakers, however, are choosing to put their eggs in other baskets, like the several smaller festivals that come to Park City during Sundance week. As Sundance began to acquire the reputation for being more “industry” than “alternative,” festivals like Slamdance emerged as alternatives to the alternative. Now in its seventh year in Park City, Slamdance is described by director and co-founder Peter Baxter as a festival that’s more about the truly independent filmmaker than Sundance is.

“I think Sundance is still a very important festival,” Baxter acknowledges, “but they’ve moved steadily up-market, showing films made by distributors’ money.”

Baxter further notes that Slamdance is not simply a festival left to pick up what Sundance rejects. This year, Slamdance will premiere Brooklyn Babylon, the new film by director Marc Levin, whose Slam won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 1998. The choice was Levin’s, not Sundance’s, and made for very specific reasons. “I think [Levin] sees Slamdance as a pure independent film festival,” Baxter says. “Successful independent film should be made by a group of filmmakers who can sign their own name to it and not feel they were influenced by other producers’ or interests’ needs and wants.”

“It’s Too Big for Park City”

Nothing is more daunting for many festival attendees than the logistics of dealing with a mountain town in January, bursting at the seams with more than 10,000 additional bodies. In 1999, Park City police issued more than 13,000 parking citations. Last year, a party sponsored by AtomFilms was shut down when they tried to cram 800 people into two residential apartments. Filmmakers cover every available space with posters and leaflets, and venues on opposite ends of town leave people scrambling through winter conditions to make the next showtime. Has the town reached the Sundance breaking point?

Park City Manager Toby Ross acknowledges there have been strains, but believes Sundance is constantly making strides to improve the logistics of the festival. “I think they work well with the city,” he says. “We have planning meetings all through the year, and try to identify any problems from previous years.”

“I won’t say we’ve solved all our problems,” says Gilmore about staging the festival in Park City, “but we’ve really addressed them. People have come up to me to say, ‘This is the festival I most look forward to coming to, and most look forward to leaving.’ We hope we have made the experience for people a big jump from where it used to be.”

For at least some previous Sundancers, the jump isn’t quite enough. “If I didn’t have a film there,” admits Gavin O’Connor, “I’d never go.”

John Anderson will not be in Park City this year, the first in a decade he has not attended. “I’m a little tired of it,” he says. “Park City is a tough place to negotiate. It’s not a town that goes out of its way to make life easy for you.”

Ebert will be back, but he doesn’t relish the Park City experience. “Every time I wade through a snowdrift, fall on the ice or get stuck in my car, I wonder why it is necessary to hold this festival in a ski town,” he says. “Think how much fun it would be in Santa Barbara.”

Often lost in the whirlwind of Sundance is the effect of the festival on the town’s residents. The relationship between the locals and the festival attendees—often referred to by Parkites as “PIBs,” or “People in Black”—can politely be called love-hate.

Chris Pappas, a manager at the Eating Establishment restaurant across Main Street from the Egyptian Theatre, describes the festival week experience as, “biting your lip and trying to be nice. When I’m out walking the street and not working, I love it. There’s buzz; there’s excitement. But it’s hard when people come in, with 40 people already in line, and crowd straight to the front of the line to say, ‘I just want some eggs and bacon.’ It’s getting too big for this town,” Pappas says. “There’s just more and more people every year.”

“People get really demanding,” agrees Jenny Post, a longtime resident who works both at the Morning Ray Café and the private club 350 Main. “For the locals it’s good, because it gets a lot of people to come here and spend money. But we do get overloaded. And I hate that they trash the town with flyers.”

There are other upsides as well, Post says. “It’s good to bring the culture to the town. And personally, I just like to see the freaks.”

“A lot of people just leave town,” notes Sheldon Frei, who served as the festival’s transportation coordinator in 2000. “Those that embrace [Sundance] are generally the movie lovers. The others pretty much just tolerate it.”

So What the Hell Is Sundance, Anyway?

As the PIBs descend on Park City for another year, no one questions that Sundance is constantly evolving. The crucial questions are, is Sundance still serving the purpose of opening doors for American independent filmmakers, and can it continue to serve that purpose in its present location?

The answers still depend on what end of this particular elephant you’re grabbing. If you’re a Park City resident, the festival may have become far too big for the town. If you’re a journalist, it may be a place where press screenings are too crowded and parking is impossible. And if you’re a filmmaker, like Kenneth Lonergan, you can be left with the image of “looking up and seeing skiers floating over your head like seraphim.”

Has it become, as John Anderson describes it, “kind of a parody of itself, with all the cell phones and people in black”—a frenzy of producers, agents, publicists and stars turning a small Utah town upside down? At times, most certainly. There’s also little question that it has expanded the market for the kinds of films American audiences can see, and opened the door for dozens of talented filmmakers over its 20-year existence.

Sundance is a fascinating collection of contradictions, perhaps best summed up by Gavin O’Connor. “There are forces outside the festival constantly pounding on the door,” he acknowledges. But when it came to advising a director whose project he is co-producing, O’Connor was quite clear: “I keep saying be patient and let’s go to Sundance with it. It will be an experience you will cherish for the rest of your life.”