Feels Like The First Time: New Filmmakers Get Nerve-Wracking Introductions in Park City
by Andrea Meyer
Like any great international film festival, Sundance showcases the works of the world’s great filmmakers. People turn up expecting a sure thing. However, the festival’s lifeblood lies in its most unpredictable element: the films of its first-time directors. “I’ve always said it’s a festival of discovery,” says Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore. “People talk about the discovery of new films, but for me it’s as much about new talent.”
Enticed by a program that includes 51 films by first-time directors, film professionals and cinephiles are flocking to Park City — this year like every year — in the hopes of seeing something new on screen that will rock their worlds. These films offer the festival’s hottest commodity: raw, untouched talent.
So, what about this group of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed directors heading off to the most important film festival in America clutching their precious film prints in their hands? They are about to become the object of more inflated hope and expectation than any fledgling creative should have to face. And they’re under just a little bit of pressure. “They bring a kind of ingenuousness — an excitement and naïveté — and also a fear factor,” Gilmore says. “It’s a constant struggle to get people to feel comfortable, to not get over-hyped or over-excited, to enjoy themselves instead of feeling the pressure.”
Bloated expectations are not unfounded. Year after year, some young filmmaker gets hailed as the Next Big Thing, and his or her career is propelled into the cinematic stratosphere. This possibility inevitably lies in the back of every director’s mind, as well as every audience member’s — especially distributors.
“The period before a director gets discovered is exciting,” says Marie Therese Guirgis, Head of Acquisitions for Wellspring, who goes to Sundance primarily to look at documentaries for theatrical release and international sales. “The moment a filmmaker is discovered, everyone is chasing them, and by the time they make their second or third movie, they’re usually glossier. I think that expectation is the most interesting part of a film festival.”
Even with the Sundance seal of approval, debut features remain an unknown quantity. All the audience has to go by is that enigmatic, ever-annoying phenomenon called buzz. “Jared Hess and the ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ guys are exciting to me,” says Gilmore. “These are Utah boys, locals. And Shane Carruth and the whole ‘Primer’ team came out of nowhere. I don’t think they have any idea what kind of film they’ve made yet, how exceptional it is, how different. You look at them and say, ‘God, I hope this plays well for you.’ But you have to think about how much you’ve learned, how special this has been for you as an artist, not whether the experiment that you’ve undertaken is going to be completely embraced, because it might not be.”
Therein lies the rub. Sundance offers an opportunity for filmmakers to launch their careers and sell their movies for the big bucks, but it’s not going to happen for everyone. They have to be hungry and confident, without being blinded by hype and anxiety. “I try to tell people you can’t treat this as an ordeal,” says Gilmore. “I’ve known filmmakers who came to the festival and didn’t come out of their room. They were almost paralyzed.”
Pre-Park City, new filmmakers spend a lot of time reminding themselves to have a good time without fixating on the hype and potential sales. Rodney Evans, whose film “Brother to Brother” is screening in dramatic competition, says, “I’m very proud of ‘Brother To Brother’ and excited for people to see it after the six long years it took to make.” He says the best advice he’s received about Sundance is: “Keep your expectations low and trust that a good film will speak for itself.”
Debra Granik, writer/director of dramatic competition film “Down to the Bone” says her plan is, “Remember what you were born for. Stay out of the fray. Grow an extra three inches of thick skin. Enjoy the films.”
The heat is on. The film biz hordes are pouring into Park City, chattering, buzzing and hoping for a movie that will move them and wow them and, in the case of distributors, make them yank out their checkbooks. “You always remember those experiences where you’re there and you think, ‘Wow, this person is really talented and I’m part of the first group of people to see this film,'” says Guirgis. “There might be something that’s not quite perfect, but you can see that this is someone who really has something, and that’s so rewarding.”