In a 1998 episode of "South Park," an animated Robert Redford grows tired of holding the Sundance Film Festival in Park City and sets up shop in the show’s small town Colorado setting instead. Addressing locals, he announces plans to demolish the local library and build a "Hollywood Planet" restaurant in its place.
"Can they do that?" asks one local. "They’re Hollywood," the mayor replies, "they can do anything."
In the years since that parodic assessment, the idea of Sundance as a commercial platform in arthouse clothing has only intensified, with filmmaker alumni such as Colin Trevorrow ("Safety Not Guaranteed") and Jon Watts ("Cop Car") going on from success at the festival to make huge studio tentpoles ("Jurassic World" and "Spider-Man," respectively). In the context of these developments and the hordes of distributors vying for new content, the vaguely-defined notion of "independence" touted by the festival each year seems like a misnomer.
But this criticism misses a crucial piece of the equation. While Cannes may carry the brand of top-quality cinema with its nose pointed high in the air, Sundance fights to stay ahead of the curve. In the decade since I started attending, its programming has undergone dramatic changes to address legitimate changes to film culture.
Its American Spectrum section became NEXT, a space for edgier titles with less obvious commercial potential that critics and audiences tend to champion above all else (with so many filmmakers working on the cheap, there’s a glut of possibilities; NEXT expands the arena without fighting for the more mainstream-oriented competition).
The role of television at the festival went from a single epic screening of Jane Campion’s "Top of the Lake" to this year’s eight titles, which even includes the adaptation of a Sundance premiere (Starz’s "The Girlfriend Experience," the feature film of which premiered at Sundance in 2009). The marginalized role of installation art grouped together at New Frontiers has become the hippest kid on the block, hosting dozens of virtual reality projects, including some from filmmakers of note. And digital entities like Netflix and Amazon roll through town with deep pockets and more flexibility than traditional buyers. Sundance is a stage for these emerging dramas to play out in microcosm.
At the same time, the original spirit of independent film that made the Park City gathering such a compelling showcase in the first place holds fast. Filmmakers who first burst onto the scene in the nineties populate several sections this year, with Kelly Reichardt ("Certain Women"), Todd Solondz ("Wiener-Dog") and Whit Sillman ("Love and Friendship") showing no signs of compromise as they continue to make the kind of distinctive projects that first put them on the map.
Meanwhile, plenty of returning filmmakers at earlier stages of their careers suggest a new generation of storytellers coming into their own. The delicate, unsettling work by Tim Sutton ("Dark Night") and Antonio Campos ("Christine") is poised to keep rising in profile, while documentarian Robert Greene ("Kate Plays Christine") continues to expand his efforts to challenge definitions of the non-fiction form.
From the moment Redford faced hordes of press on his usual opening day press conference, he faced tough questions that speak to broader issues assailing the industry. Chief among them: What to make of Hollywood’s diversity problem — and could Hollywood provide the antidote? Perhaps distributors will eagerly chase after Nate Parker’s Nat Turner biopic "The Birth of a Nation," the gentle comedy "Morris from America" or take a chance with potential NEXT discovery "Sleight" — all of which involve persons of color — just as much as they’ll jump for the Nick Jonas-starring frat drama "Goat." Sundance could urge them to do as much. But Redford kept his remarks simple, emphasizing the role of artists to find ways of telling diverse stories to provide Sundance with the material to showcase it.
Who’s responsible for the shortcomings of the business? Opinions vary, but Sundance provides a framing device for talking it through, examining the relationship between art and industry during periods of radical cultural shifts. Its program may offer great movies, terrible movies, or middle-of-the-road movies, but the conversations they engender matter just as much.
Eighteen years since that "South Park" parody, it may contain a kernel of truth, but Sundance remains a resilient focal point for evaluating the present moment. By virtue of chasing these vital conversations, the festival justifies its existence. Now we’ll find out if the movies can keep up.