It's finally here: The first in a series of lineup announcements from the Sundance Film Festival. Indiewire published the 2012 competition this afternoon, which includes 110 features selected from 4,042 submissions. The program represents 31 countries, with 44 films from first-time filmmakers. (Tomorrow will bring details of the NEXT, Park City at Midnight and Spotlight sections.)
"We are, and always have been, a festival about the filmmakers," Sundance founder Robert Redford said in a statement. "They are making statements about the changing world we live in."
Meanwhile, the world that Sundance lives in has changed as well: Last year, festival-goers crowded into a diminished environment with the Racquet Club (one of the larger screening locations) out of commission for renovations. But that venue is back in action, as Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper noted in a phone conversation with IW on Tuesday alongside the festival's head of programming, Trevor Groth.
And while Sundance's New Frontier is moving to a new home (The Yard, for those familiar with Park City), the festival's size and feel should be familiar for most who make the annual pilgrimage. Cooper and Groth shared their insights on the festival, which kicks off January 19.
Any significant changes in terms of numbers to the various sections this year?
John Cooper: Maybe a little addition of one or two films, here or there. With filmmakers able to edit so quickly and shoot things so quickly now, that's all part of the new paradigm.
IDFA head Ally Derks told us last week that recent documentaries have indicated a shift toward personal stories that offer glimpses into a larger issues. As an example, she cited "Putin's Kiss," which is also in Sundance. Have you found that to be true for the docs you've had come your way both as submissions and titles that eventually made it to your lineup?
Cooper: Of course, that was a big theme of ours last year, with "Buck," "Elmo," and "Senna," the way into big issues through a character study. For us, the pendulum has swung the other way this year. We have a little more of the big and comprehensive, which takes a little more time as well. All of a sudden, they'll hit. You look at the bigger issues facing America and the world — hunger, the healthcare dilemma, the war on drugs.
We have one in the Documentary Premieres, "The House I Live In," that's a whole overview of that movement. It's a little more of that, which I'm kind of thankful for. I do agree that doc filmmakers in general are thinking more about the cinematic experience and making very good stories out of their facts so the films aren't necessarily dry or unemotional. In fact, they're almost thrilling at times. The new storyteller backbone in the doc world is real, I think.
Groth: You're also drawn to things that work really well in a theater, especially at a festival.
And what are some general trends, if any, that you've noticed on the narrative feature side this year?
Cooper: There seems to be a little more depth of quality in independent cinema in general. Stories are coming from more original places, there is more diversity in those stories. Tech advances we've seen in the last 10 years are adding to that as well. There's more attention to the whole equation. A bar is being set that keeps rising every year in the filmmaking community. I think it comes from the filmmakers who have come from the immediate past and are making it in the marketplace, like the director of "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Sean Durkin.
These filmmakers talk a lot about a sustainable career. That's really is the big prize. You get to work a lot, and that's exciting for me, it makes for more of a movement.
Also interesting this year are the women filmmakers and female-driven characters. There have always been a lot of women directors representing at Sundance. And this year, there are a lot of women characters in films that have strong character roles, especially in comedy. These characters I'm talking about are practically in every scene. They're carrying these movies in a real way.
It's been four years since the financial crisis hit and films debuting today — at least most of them — have lived through tough economic times as a backdrop. Have you seen this reflected in many of the films you've seen?
Cooper: I think sometimes financial crises are good for artists. They thrive in the struggle. Just financially, I see it not so much as a crisis as a market correction in the film world, both in the prices people pay to buy movies and the amount the filmmakers can make a movie for.
Groth: You have more of a perspective on it the further away you get. It's more about what films stand the test of time.
"Red State" had its share of controversy last year, even drawing some protesters. Will there be more controversy this time around?
Cooper: [Laughs] Controversy at Sundance is almost non-existent.
Groth: I love controversy and think button-pushing is one thing that filmmakers do very well.
Last year was something of a bonanza in terms of traditional acquisitions, even as the Sundance Institute began announcing initiatives that will help Sundance Film Festival filmmakers to take advantage of securing self-distribution. Do you think that buying frenzy will be replicated this year?
Cooper: We're thinking of the marketplace as a little different with our whole artist's services we launched over the summer. Films are now coming in knowing they have this option already, which is really exciting for me. You basically can self-distribute very easily through this service. I think a lot of the producers are going to be looking at this as really an option. As the years go on, I think it's going to be a real game-changer.
Groth: The pressure of having to secure distribution is [mostly] taken off. Hopefully, this will alleviate some of that tension. Of course, if they get a good offer from someone, they should take it.