Still Dancing After 13 Years; A Conversation with Sundance Film Festival Director Geoff Gilmore
by Matthew Ross
Geoff Gilmore arrived for work at the Park City’s USA Film Festival in 1990, the year after two relatively unknown guys named Harvey and Bob Weinstein watched a film called “sex, lies, and videotape” by an totally unknown 26-year-old director named Steven Soderbergh, who then went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and completely changed the face of filmmaking in the United States. In 1991, the festival was renamed Sundance (due to its association with Robert Redford’s Institute of the same name), and the rest is history.
During the past 13 years, Gilmore has been instrumental in helping Sundance grow in status from a top regional showcase into the most important event in the world for American independent film. Last year, he assumed sole stewardship after the departure of longtime co-director Nicole Guillemet (now the director of the Miami Film Festival). Fairly or not, Sundance has emerged as the cultural barometer for the state of American film and its tenuous balance of art and commerce. As a result of this overwhelming influence (it is probably the only U.S. festival where independent films that later go on to box office and critical success, like 2000’s “George Washington,” later become notable for NOT being selected), Gilmore has weathered a constant barrage of both criticism and praise.
Yet despite the formidable pressure year after year to meet the expectations of the creative and business communities, Gilmore has remained at the festival despite receiving his fair share of attractive offers. For indieWIRE’s monthly industry spotlight column, Matthew Ross spoke with Gilmore about the festival’s evolution, the impact of digital video, and why he keeps coming back to Park City. The 2003 Sundance Film Festival kicks off tomorrow and closes January 26.
indieWIRE: How would you characterize the way the festival has changed within the last couple of years, from when Sundance first became this gigantic acquisitions-based festival with Miramax swooping in and picking up films for seven or eight figure deals to now?
Geoff Gilmore: The festival always reflects the economic context in which it is operating. I wouldn’t describe the past decade as a straight line at all; there’s always been a movement forward followed by a certain kind of regression. The nodal points, the points at which a real shift took place, are clearly in 1989 when “sex, lies, and videotape” first came out of the festival, as that certainly changed people’s vision of Sundance. But I think there was another substantial change, in ’93, with “Pulp Fiction.” They started to look not only at the odd independent film coming out and making money, but the industry itself started to see the independent world as an economically feasible world. There was a changing relationship as far as where all the production funds were coming from.
Then, in ’96, there was a major change going on in terms of the economics of funding independent film and that also became a substantive change in terms of where the economics of the industry were heading. Strong companies were developing. You weren’t just talking about companies hanging on by their teeth. Miramax saw itself as having a whole range of operative goals, and part of that was the independent industry, but part of it was a more mainstream kind of independent filmmaking. And that was also reflected in what happened at the festival that year, where there were more buys than there have been at any point up until then.
There have been so many predictions of the independent world in utter collapse. I think what Sundance has represented a respite from those fears. We had an enormously successful year last year. More films were picked up than in any other year since ’96. The prices of those films were more reasonable overall than they were a couple of years ago, but they weren’t bad either.
When you have someone [Miramax] paying what they paid for “Tadpole” [$5 million], that’s a sizable investment. I think that in the last couple of years, there has been a turning point in the strength of the market, even in this situation, where there’s a crisis production funding. If you look at the numbers, an enormous number of films get produced. So there’s something going here that’s more complicated than people want to write about, because it’s hard for them to balance between why all these films are getting produced and the fact that there’s such a crisis of funding. There’s clearly fewer of the bigger mainstream works getting made at a high price. There’s clearly fewer films being made at the $2 to $5 million level. But there are a lot of films getting made with major actors in them, with a real focus of resources, and that has continued unabated in some ways over the last five years. There’s the glass is half full and the glass is half empty, and you have to look at in different positions.
There is clearly one major crisis in the independent industry and that’s the crisis in distribution. And the crisis in distribution is how absolutely difficult it is to get films into this marketplace and to keep them there. That said, there are well over 200 films that were distributed last year. And that’s a fairly substantive figure. One can go back and forth as to what state the industry is in.
iW: Given the way the economics have shifted, aside from affecting the fact that there fewer $2 to $5 million productions, how else has the current economic situation affected the kinds of films — in terms of overall character and quality — that are playing at Sundance?
Gilmore: That’s a really good question. What that means is that a lot the works that been done have really been driven by creative passion. That creates diversity of the quality and the aesthetic of this work because these aren’t market-driven films in the sense that some people look at an independent genre of film and say, “We’re going to imitate this and we’re going to go back into this marketplace.” No, it’s to hard to get those films made and the films that get made have clearly gotten made by being carried on the backs of the filmmakers and the producers who have managed to get these works done. There’s a specific kind of quality to them, a quality that I can only describe as a kind of an originality, a kind of creatively driven work, rather than work that is driven with its eyes on the market.
iW: How would you say the economic issues that we’ve discussed have affected emerging filmmakers that may not have the resources, budgets, or cast that other films have?
Gilmore: I think it’s had a negative impact in that it’s tougher to get those films into distribution. But in a sense I think that’s always been the case. That said, there’s still a lot of space for independent filmmakers who make films without name actors. And in any given year, there are a number of those that are going to emerge and make it into the marketplace. But that road is always going to be difficult. You could argue that the classic Cinderella film of five or six years ago wouldn’t be embraced by the distributors now. And that may be true to a certain extent. If a company is looking to do $10 million at the box office instead of $1 million, that’s going to drastically change their vision of what films they go after. But it’s still not predictable. Do you know anyone in their right mind who would have told you that “Memento,” “In the Bedroom,” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” would be the biggest breakout hits of the last two years? Anyone who tells you that they predicted that is full of it.
iW: How would you say the advent of digital video has affected the festival?
Gilmore: It’s begun to affect it a lot in a number of different ways. At least a quarter, if not more, of the work in the festival is digital. But there’s also been a complete change in the attitude towards digital. A couple of years ago, filmmakers would shoot in digital and present the work on film, with the idea that they saved their money in production but they didn’t want to come to the festival being categorized as video. Now, we’re showing work on video, with the idea being that that the film might be changed. Also, the quality has become raised. The day a film like “Tadpole” sold for what it did was the day the industry stopped worrying about what format a film was shot on. But with the standards of High Definition and 24P still being developed, people are still unsure as to what digital filmmaking still has in front of it. A day will come when works will be digitally showcased across the country, and that’s a world we haven’t entered into yet.
iW: Every year, there’s a film that sells for a huge amount of money, whether it be “Happy Texas” in 1999 or “Tadpole” last year. How do those big acquisitions affect the festival?
Gilmore: They’re benchmarks that reflect the ambition that people have, but I don’t think those sales every really affect the festival overall. Usually there are one or two films that hit some high number, and sometimes people come back and say that those films didn’t do all that well at the box office. But that has nothing to do with us. They way these films are released to me doesn’t reflect what we present. But it does show you how tough this business is to predict. People tend to worry about the individual prices, but I still look at the range of films that are picked up in a given year rather than single examples. I think these numbers can be talked about in different ways. The only number that really counts to me is the number of films in the festival that get into distribution. That’s a better way of appreciating how the independent world has evolved instead of looking at the highest bid somebody was smart enough or foolish enough to spend on a given movie.
iW: In the past few years, the festival has placed more emphasis on promoting non-fiction filmmaking. What would you like to see happen to the documentary world as a result of your involvement?
Gilmore: You want to give it a profile, you want to give it more legitimacy. You want to try to break the old stereotypes of what people think of non-fiction films, they are those terrible talking-head movies you were forced to watch in high school. What we’re trying to do is open up people to what the spectrum of non-fiction film is. One of the things we did at this year’s festival was to open the range of international documentaries that are being shown, in order to give a sense of the kinds of things that are being produced. Ultimately, if you watch a lot of this work, you’ll see it as enormously entertaining and provocative.
iW: There were rumors several years ago that you were leaving the festival to take another position, possibly in distribution. And I’m sure you must have gotten so many offers over the years to leave Sundance. Why do you think you’ve stayed?
Gilmore: In terms of those rumors, it turned out not to be the right time for me. After you’ve done something for a while, you’re always going to reflect on what it is you’ve done and what you’ll be doing in the future. It’s not frustration as much as it was wanting to do something fresh and challenging in a different way. I’m actually very happy because the last couple of years have been very good for me. I felt enormously invigorated by last year’s festival, as I have with this one. I’m excited to still be doing this, and even though we’re faced with all the challenges in the independent arena, I feel more inspired by a lot of the work that I’ve looked at recently.
Perhaps there was a time when a lot of the work being sent in seemed similar to industry work, and it almost looked like the independent arena itself was shifting focus. Now, I’m excited about independent film. I feel that my sensibilities and my talents fit very well in this arena. I’m very happy a Sundance; I have a very good relationship with Robert Redford, and it’s one that I hope continues.