The Sundance Film Festival, which opens Thursday, is where the new year’s buzz starts for independent and specialty movies hoping to become arthouse hits. Last year’s Sundance worked for “Waitress,” “Once,” “No End in Sight,” “The Savages” among others, but how does the buzz get started at Sundance? Or, more to the point, how do some films get on festgoers’ short list of must-see titles even before the event begins? Such advance buzz can be a leg up for those films since, according to Sundance’s press office, 121 feature-length entries are being shown this year. With 87 being world premieres, 14 North American premieres and 12 U.S. premieres, most are unknown quantities. Further, there are 55 first-time filmmakers, including 32 in competition. And as reported yesterday in indieWIRE, there are some 100 films on the market for potential U.S. distribution.
Some Sundance films obviously rise to the forefront in advance simply because of their subject matter or even the novelty factor, especially among the event’s roster of high-profile premieres — “U23D,” for instance — or their debuting time slot (Irish playwright Martin McDonagh‘s “In Bruges,” the opening night fest selection). And others, because of their cast and subject matter instantly leap out, such as Barry Levinson‘s adaptation of Art Linson‘s inside-Hollywood memoir “What Just Happened?” with Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis and Sean Penn.
But what makes anyone want to see, say, a Park City at Midnight horror film like “Donkey Punch,” by a first-time filmmaker (Olly Blackburn) with a cast of unknowns? Britta Erickson, festival director for the Denver Film Society, bought an advance ticket for that even though she’s not a genre or horror fan.
That’s because she responded to the traditional “first word” on Sundance – the signed program notes in the film guide mailed to interested parties several weeks before the event (and also available online). It’s crucial for establishing early buzz and selling advance tickets, since each write-up passionately argues its film’s merits. Erickson, for instance, trusts Sundance senior programmer Trevor Groth. And this year, he wrote about “Donkey Punch”: “Sex, drugs and beautiful people on board a luxurious yacht in the Mediterranean – not your typical setting for a horror film. But ‘Donkey Punch’ isn’t your typical horror film…”
That was enough for Denver’s Erickson, going to Sundance for the seventh time this year. “What I love about Sundance is the signed program notes,” she said. “After so many years of going, you get to know individual programmers from their notes and it works as film criticism. That is one way I take cues. Once I get the guide, I usually take the entire weekend to sit on couch and try to put things together.”
Behind many of the films at Sundance are business people – publicists, sales agents and other representatives – dedicated to getting their client’s movie positive buzz so it can be sold and/or successfully released. They have seen the film in advance and are often in touch with buyers, distributors and writers in professional and social situations. In short, people talk (or email). It’s a “grassroots things,” explained Tom Bernard, Sony Pictures Classics‘ co-president.
“This is a fairly large chattering class, when you talk about the publicists and agents and managers and lawyers and the (Sundance) press office and you guys,” offered Mark Pogachefsky, co-president of L.A. public relations firm, MPRM, one of many handling numerous titles at Sundance. “I’m sure if I told you a Sundance film is the greatest thing since sliced bread, you’d probably tell your editor.”
It occasionally happens, ego being what it is, that as word gets around, some of those people stop saying, “I heard this film is great” and become the voice of authority on it. And then buzz becomes hype. So it’s important for publicists to manage buzz, Pogachefsky says. “The idea that a movie is the greatest thing to come down the pike when nobody has seen it is not necessarily the best thing going in.”
How it is managed depends on whether a film is for sale at Sundance, or already has a distributor. It also depends on whether the project’s so-called “buzz managers” want to screen it in advance for select writers and others. Films in Sundance’s World Cinema section are more likely to get pre-screened, since they’re less a priority for filmgoers than those in the Premieres section or the Dramatic and Documentary competitions.
“If I’ve got a drama like ‘Mancora,’ a gorgeous foreign-language film that may do better at sea level, I may show that movie ahead of time,” noted Jeremy Walker, of the firm Jeremy Walker + Associates. “I don’t need a crowd for someone to appreciate incredible cinematography and performances.” (“Mancora,” by Ricardo de Montreuil, is about a road trip to a Peruvian resort.)
Pogachefsky, too, has a World Cinema movie he has screened in advance for press in L.A. – “Just Another Love Story” by Danish director/screenwriter Ole Bornedal. “At the end of the day, I need to give that movie a leg up. And it’s already opened in Denmark and I believe it was in one of the (film sales) markets. So it’s not like it’s a big secret, except to the press.”
Publicist Walker says another crucial component in creating buzz is making sure that the best possible color photos get sent to Sundance for inclusion in the event’s official Film Guide. The artwork is just as important as the words in creating advance buzz, he says. So his job, very quickly after someone hires him to work a Sundance film, is to consult on the best artwork to submit for publication.
“I look at it the same way I look at the Williams-Sonoma catalog in the mail,” he says. “That photo of a K5A mixer better look beautiful if I’m expected to pay $400 for it. It’s the same with a movie still. It better look sexy and commercial if people are expected to buy the merchandise. And that photo can also raise expectations. If you choose a picture of a movie star wearing a funny face, people may get the impression your award-caliber drama is some kind of comedy.”
Thus, for a Spectrum section entry he is representing this year, Craig Lucas‘ drama “Birds of America” about a troubled suburban family, Walker made sure the photo was of star Matthew Perry looking serious – not funny or romantic, as in “Friends” – on a park bench.
Ultimately, the media play a big role in establishing advance buzz just by finding titles worthy of mention in advance stories. IndieWIRE, for instance, has since late December been profiling first-time directors with films in Sundance this year. Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, in a story known by Sundance veterans as a “festival curtain raiser,” predicted demand for such titles as Michael Haneke‘s English-language remake of his Austrian thriller “Funny Games” and Morgan Spurlock‘s new documentary, “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?“
The article also highlighted the Dramatic Competition film “The Wackness,” from writer/director Jonathan Levine, saying that the film, “Contains perhaps the festival’s most eagerly anticipated moment on film; a long lip-lock that (Ben) Kingsley shares with Mary-Kate Olsen.”
But that kind of buzz creation can – and has – backfired. “It’s typical that the buzz film coming in isn’t the buzz film coming out. Look at ‘Hounddog‘,” warned Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures. (That 2007 film was much buzzed-about as daring in advance of the fesival because of a child rape scene involving Dakota Fanning. But terrible word-of-mouth and reviews, once it could be seen, killed it.) “Every year there’s a star-driven film that the media need to write about without knowing anything about.”
[Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelancer and former Denver Post movie critic.]
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.