"I think that this year is going to be the festival of new faces," Sundance Film Festival director of programming John Cooper told indieWIRE Monday during a telephone interview alongside festival director Geoff Gilmore. Cooper cited discoveries both in front of and behind the camera this year. "I think its going to be historic in a way, I don't think we have had a year like this for awhile." Reviewing the list of films playing at the festival this year (which has been published here at indieWIRE.com), there seem to be a number of new names. Nearly 50 first-timer feature filmmakers are set for Sundance '06, which Gilmore agreed includes many films coming from outside the typical channels. He also seemed to emphasize Sundance's roots, seeking to distinguish it from the many other leading film festivals in the world.
This year's festival appears to offer more world, North American, and U.S. premieres than perhaps ever before, but Geoff Gilmore was quick to shoot down any idea of Sundance seeking to avoid films from other U.S. festivals. While 117 of the 120 features that will screen at Sundance have never screened at any other festival in this country, Gilmore explained that the move was not intentional. "This year we just had more possibilities that came to us," he said, adding, "Some of the American (films) that played in Toronto got visibility and sometimes we are trying to pick something that didn't (get that visibility)." John Cooper added that he believes directors and producers are being much more strategic about where they want to premiere their films. "Filmmakers are more aware of what it means to have your film in places," he said, "They know that it means a lot to their films, it is part of a strategy to get it sold."
To that end, buyers will no doubt be eyeing narrative titles in the true heart of the Sundance Film Festival, its Independent Dramatic Competition. All of the sixteen titles in competition are without distribution, according to organizers. But Gilmore and Cooper refrained from making any predictions about business activity; perhaps to avoid over-hyping titles this year.
Stating clearly that Sundance is still focused on independent films, Gilmore said, "If I were going to characterize this festival in any way, I would say it's a very independent festival -- one would never mistake us as having come from any other place than the independent arena." Continuing he added, "Diversity, originality, relevance really make this festival very spherical to me. Maybe some of the work doesn't play as broadly, there may be a lot of surprises in this year's festival, and these aren't questions that are easy to assess this year."
Programmers at Sundance noted that they saw a major jump in submissions for the upcoming festival (receiving nearly 400 more American films than last year) and they took pains to distinguish Sundance programming from that of other international festivals. Gilmore and Cooper told indieWIRE that they had to make some very tough decisions. "The quality of what we were offered made it difficult," Gilmore said, "The choices this year were the most difficult that we've ever had to face as far as I am concerned. We were really making difficult choices. We are not as inclusive or as broad as some of the bigger festivals, we stick pretty much with the number (of films) we've had for the last few years."
"There is a lot of diversity and range, a full spectrum of aesthetics and we'll see how broadly people respond to them," added Geoff Gilmore.
The Sundance festival director emphasized that more films this year seemed to come from "out of the blue," or as he added "over the transom." He said that many movies this year seem to come from new producers and that while sales reps or other insiders recommended titles to the festival as always, there are again many new names and faces represented. "It invigorates you," he added, "when something just pops out." Cooper added that he is particularly excited to have some 32 films that were directed by women, which he explained is greater than in previous years.
Among the biggest changes this year is the Sundance decision to change the American Spectrum section into simply, 'Spectrum' and a move to cut the number of films screening in the Premieres section. "Every festival continues to evolve every year, if it doesn't it continues to get stagnant." Gilmore explained that they wanted to find a place for promising films that might not necessarily work as a premiere in a larger festival theater venue. "It is about opening yourself up to that range of filmmakers that is not based purely on the biggest films and the biggest names."
The Sundance competition seems to have an even higher profile among organizers and they were clear to focus on those four sections as the heart of the event. "That's our core, that's our focus," emphasized Gilmore, "(The) Premieres (section) isn't the focus of the festival. The competition really goes back to what the core of Sundance's values are: originality, risk-taking, looking for discovery, really trying to push that aesthetic edge, to have the whole spectrum of work that we are really talking about in the independent world."
Gilmore and Cooper also added that this year the event will include a closing film, which will be the last Premiere section title. It will screen on the final Friday of the event. On the logistical side, organizers indicated that they intend to improve the quality of the new Racquet Club screening venue in Park City. The festival also previously announced a greater presence in Salt Lake City at the upcoming festival.
Concluding the discussion with indieWIRE Gilmore emphasized during the conversation with indieWIRE, "There is a real sense this year (of Sundance) being something that (is) about the authenticity, relevance, and originality of independent film, and discovery."