While the internet is abuzz with the most recent casting announcements for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, an army of young, aspiring directors are ascending to the rugged mountains of Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, an annual showcase and celebration of independent cinema.
The festival, set in the mountain resort of Park City, Utah, remains THE standard bearer of American Independent Cinema, boasting a litany of Horatio Alger success stories from discovering Lisa Cholodenko, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Edward Burns, and Darren Aaronovsky; launching box office juggernauts like The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Garden State, and Napoleon Dynamite, and introducing us to Awards-season champs Precious, Shine, Little Miss Sunshine and The Full Monty, as well as current contenders The Kids are All Right, Blue Valentine and Winter's Bone.
That Sundance has always retained strong ties to the Hollywood establishment is indisputable, thanks to the clout of Institute's founders and key board members like Robert Redford and the Sydney Pollack. At its worst, the Sundance Film Festival has become a magnet for sycophantic Hollywood types looking for "the next big thing," a playground where A-list celebrities go to see-and-be-seen, and where waning stars go in search of street cred spark by "slumming" in a grittier independent film.
Yet, despite so much vapid celebrity coverage, Sundance continues to play a major role in the life of small films and unknown filmmakers. Such attention cuts like a double-edged sword. Does the white-hot spotlight of the media coverage not ultimately bring attention to the unknowns? Do the parties, and celebrities, and "Access Hollywood" updates not add glitz and glamor to the proceedings? Is the fact that the Hollywood establishment does seem to care not the very reason the festival is in the privileged position it is in? The Catch-22 Sundance faces is how to straddle that line: capitalize on the media attention without forsaking mission.
In recent years, Robert Redford has become notoriously bitter about the media's attention on celebrity coverage at the event.
In a Hitfix piece by Melinda Newman, covering last year's festival, Redford bemoaned the Paris Hilton-ization of the event:
“I assumed we wouldn’t last more than 10 years. When we cease to provide a benefit to independent filmmakers we shouldn’t stick around, but as long as we [could], we should keep going.” He added that he takes the festival’s temperature every year and that over the last few years, he’d felt, “we were sliding,” in part due to the hijacking of the festival by “ambush marketers who took over Main Street and the houses in the mountains, at three or four times [the normal price] to hand out their swag. You end up with Paris Hilton here who had nothing to do with us.” Redford has trotted out Hilton as the poster child of the over commercialization of Sundance by brand names hoping to capitalize on Sundance’s reputation. “There’s nothing we do about that, but it kind of engulfed what we did. Now with the economy, these people can’t come back or I hope they don’t come.”
Two questions: If the attention went away, who would it harm most if not the filmmakers? And isn't his stance somewhat disingenuous, since his celebrity is what helped build the thing in the first place?
That Sundance continues to “discover, support, and inspire independent film and theatre artists from the United States and around the world, and to introduce audiences to their new work” is a testament to Redford's sincerity, and commitment to its mission. Were this simply a vanity project, he could be content to bask in the media attention.
But he is steadfast in making a case for the vitality of emerging voices.
In his press 2011 conference, both Redford and Festival Director John Cooper both emphasized discovery:
Redford led off the press conference calling for renewed focus on how the original mission for the Institute still defines the Festival. “We’re always asking, ‘What are we doing, why are we here, what’s the point of all of this?’” he said. “The point simply has been to do whatever we can to create opportunities for new artists.”
(Side bar: Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, we can all enjoy Redford's 2011 press conference on the Web—as well as other LIVE Sundance events streaming here: http://www.sundance.org/videos/live/)
I believe that Sundance's continued commitment to mission is a reaction, in part, to the persistent presence of Slamdance (as well as the emergence of Austin's SXSW as a Mecca for the next wave of indie film).
For over a decade and a half, in a variety of locations, but mainly atop Main Street in the modest setting of the Treasure Mountain Inn, Slamdance has remained the-little-festival-that-could, a symbol of DIY (do-it-yourself) moxie, and a beacon of Independents. (Disclosure: I served as an unpaid projectionist, juror, panelist, and jury wrangler for Slamdance for over eight years, and I continue an advisory role with the event.) The festival's motto remains "By Filmmakers, For Filmmakers" assuring that Slamdance will never fall prey to claims of commercialism or selling-out. Its filmmaker driven programing is stubbornly committed to films by first-time directors. From the Slamdance press release: "The selected films have all been made on a small budget (ed note: defined as less than $500,000) and head to Park City without distribution - all full of immense promise."
Redford once infamously called upstart Slamdance "a parasite." Yet the smaller festival has served as the conscience of indie film. In a number of significant ways Slamdance has helped clarify Sundance's role to the filmmaking community.
Revision Note: at this year's press conference, Redford directly addressed Slamdance. The IndieWIRE headline" Sundance ‘11 | Redford Talks New Ideas & Initiatives and a Shout Out to Slamdance says it all:
An organization that Redford formerly condemned as a “parasite” has found new favor. When asked about the Slamdance Film Festival, he said, “The more the merrier. I don’t have any problem with it at all. Considering the number of submissions we get and since there’s so few films we can show given our space - 10,000 submissions to Sundance - [it’s fine]. I remember early on they seemed to only show films that were rejected from here, but I don’t feel like that anymore and I wish them well."
The founding of Slamdance, by a group of disgruntled first-time filmmakers whose work was rejected by Sundance, follows in the tradition of the Salon des Refusés. Disillusioned by a festival line-up stacked with star-driven content and works by Sundance alumni, the Slamdance filmmakers made the case that Sundance was in danger of heading into the terrain of legacy programming, not discovery.
Positioning itself as David to Sundance's Goliath, Slamdance turned the tables on Sundance, which had always seen itself as the "little guy." When compared to Hollywood, of course, Sundance is little. But once the indies started getting gobbled up by majors (Miramax into Disney et. al) the game changed. Sundance emerged as the premier marketplace for American Independent Film, and maintained a relative Monopoly on that position for nearly a decade. Like it or not, Sundance became a market, and the industry placed high expectations on Sundance to continue to present a slate of competitive films with commercial appeal or break-out potential.
Even with the emergence of SXSW, and contenders like Tribeca, CineVegas, and Slamdance, Sundance remains the first stop for discovering new voices and for nurturing talent. It is also remains the launching point for premium independent films in search of commercial and theatrical distribution.
One could argue that Slamdance has forced Sundance to be better, to try harder, and to remain true to filmmakers, above all. It also led to expansion in Sundance's programming. This is evidenced by the addition of the "American Spectrum" program which showcased a slate of films that otherwise might have fallen through Sundance's cracks. The recent addition of the NEXT program (for low budget films) opens Sundance's doors to lower budget, off-the-beaten-trail films that have come to define both Slamdance and SXSW. Sundance shifted the geographical focus of the American Spectrum to "Spectrum" to reflect the international focus of Slamdance's programming.
Make no mistake, Sundance remains vital.
They grabbed the crown, and have made smart, tactical decisions that will keep them on the fore of the independent film marketplace. They are king of the mountaintop.
That two of this year's strongest indie box office performers (The Kids are All Right, Winter's Bone) are Sundance alums (and directed by women to boot!) bodes well for the festival. Some headlines for the 2011 festival ask, What Will be this year's The Kids are All Right?.
This is ultimately a good thing.
As long as someone is asking "What will be the next —————- at Sundance?", the festival is doing its job.
In the end, the festival's ability to launch films successfully into the marketplace will define its future viability.
When Slamdance discovers a breakout box office hit like Paranormal Activity, (a delicious irony to those of us who recognize this from the Sundance playbook with the Blair Witch over a decade ago), or picks the better of the two video game documentaries to premiere in Park City (see: King of Kong vs. Chasing Ghosts), Slamdance's mission is validated.
Slamdance also boasts its own roster of notable discoveries and alumni including aforementioned Dark Knight Rises director Christopher Nolan, whose debut film Following received its US Premiere at Slamdance in 1999. (Though it should be noted that his subsequent feature Memento was a break-out hit at Sundance.)
The irony both Sundance and Slamdance face moving forward is this: as distribution opportunities for indie films expand—VOD! Streaming! PPV! iTunes! Direct Sales! DIY Touring! Event Screenings!—a definitive successful business model for indie film distribution remains elusive.
There may not be a simple answer.
Instead of looking to others, both Sundance (Sundance Selects) and Slamdance (Slamdance Festival and VOD Showcase) are taking forays into new media and alternative distribution themselves (THAT'S THE DIY SPIRIT!).
If this is the answer, then major festival events like the 'dances—with strong reputations, trusted programming, and nationally recognized brand affinity—will play an increasingly important role in the future of independent films.
Which is why in Parts II and III, we are excited to showcase films by Atlanta filmmakers positioned for break-out success in this year's Slamdance line-up.
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