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DECADE: A Decade in the Hot Seat -- Geoff Gilmore and the Sundance Film Festival, Part 1 & 2

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire December 21, 1999 at 2:0AM

DECADE: A Decade in the Hot Seat -- Geoff Gilmore and the Sundance FilmFestival, Part 1
0

DECADE: A Decade in the Hot Seat -- Geoff Gilmore and the Sundance Film
Festival, Part 1

by Eugene Hernandez



[Part two of this interview is linked at the bottom of the page.]


Without a doubt, even though our series continues for a few more days, the
story of the past ten years in independent film begins and ends at the
Sundance Film Festival.


Now entering his 10th year at the festival, Sundance Film Festival
Co-Director Geoff Gilmore is, for better or worse, in the prime position for
credit and criticism about the films that each year come to represent the
"American Independent Film" community.


As publicist Reid Rosefelt explained in our DECADE conversation, "Sundance
has completely changed everything, because it gives everything a calendar,
it gives everything that people do within the world of independent film
momentum. And Sundance means that when you make a film, if you can get it
done in time and they can pick you, the whole world is going to come in and
look at you." Clearly, that is a lot of pressure to put on any one
institution and as a public face of Sundance, Geoff Gilmore feels
undoubtedly feels that pressure.


During a reception at the Sundance Institute in January, Institute President
Robert Redford embraced the fact the Sundance Film Festival has, in part,
evolved into a "market," acknowledging that the event should help filmmakers
prepare for this fact. "I'm fine with it being a market," Redford explained,
"The point is to create a benefit for the filmmakers. I am quite happy that
its a market."


In our conversation earlier this month, Gilmore seemed quite aware of and
comfortable with the role that the Sundance Film Festival has assumed over
the past decade, yet he also took the opportunity to answer common
criticisms of the Festival and offer a perspective on its role within the
community and his open-ness to its continued evolution.





"The single biggest factor of change in the last decade is
maturation. The fact that the filmmakers that you had working ten years ago
and each one of these last ten years are continuing to work. And instead of
it being a world of pure discovery where we're constantly dealing with
independents that are first time feature makers and coming from nowhere, we
also very much have an independent world which is an established world."






indieWIRE: People in our interviews have been saying that they are seeing
different kinds of films than they used to see 10 years ago. And since
Sundance is such an important aspect of this, and you and everybody there
see a lot of this work before most of us get to see it, do you think the
movies have changed, and if so, how?


Geoffrey Gilmore: I agree that it's changed, and I'm not sure that it's an
easy thing to give a very simple, reductive explanation of how it's changed.
Certain aspects of it seem to me very clear, which is that the number of
films being produced are just tremendously different. You know, when I
started this job, we had about 200 films to look at in terms of submissions
for competition, and now we're talking about 840 dramatic features, 360
docs, to say nothing of another 100 and something plus films that we're
considering for premieres and other kinds of categories, and another 400 -
500 for international. It's a very different universe just in terms of the
numbers of films being produced. And that in itself I think has changed.

I can't not talk about the business side in doing that, because I think that
the motivations and the issues in terms of why independent films are made
have to deal with the business issues. These are still films of passion for
many people, but there's an equal number of people out there making films
because they can now see possibilities of profit, of ways of coming into the
film industry in which they feel that the part of the industry that is most
open to them is the independent world, as opposed to trying to fight their
way through studios. And those are not the same sort of motivations
necessarily that we had a decade ago when people were for the most part in
this business only because of passion, only because of artistic passion. And
the sense that they could find an audience for their film was a feeling of
gratification, that yes, there are actually audiences for these kinds of
movies, not something that we had to debate and prove, but you could go
back, not just to the 80's with the Jarmusch's and the early Spike Lee's,
that we could start to find on a regular basis independent films that could
find and have audiences. And that was something that was clearly, for most
people, up for debate.


I think to talk about aesthetic changes -- there are a lot of aesthetic
changes -- and a lot of that has come from the fact that the spectrum of
production is so much more complicated now than it used to be. And one used
to have a sense of independent production as essentially being completely
writer fueled; the script was what pushed an independent film into
production and the nature of those scripts, whether it was subject matter or
maybe a specific perspective, was critical, whereas now the ranges of
different reasons and eventualities as to why films get made are much more
complicated and broad based. And it's not to say that those archetypically
independent films still don't get made. I think they very much still do. In
fact, I think the independent community is more the haven of a place for
creative passion and writer driven work than it's ever been. But there's an
awful lot of work that's here that's essentially generic, that's essentially
formulaic.

We've almost gone through an evolution in the last decade of looking at
independent films that have almost come out of cycles and formulas
themselves, where the 20-something angst film or the Tarantino wannabe
thriller or a certain kind of capital "Q" quirky comedy was almost a staple
of what that independent world was. And I think now we see less of those
genres in the work that's being produced, to say nothing of the work that
gets into the festival. I'm still not sure that the ways of talking about
the independent world don't depend upon a kind of complexity and a kind of
spectrum of work and not a reductive viewpoint that says this is what sums
up independent film then, and this is what sums it up now, because that's
entirely what independent work is, it's independent work that's not as
easily categorizable and primarily it's eclectic and multi-faceted because
that's what it was and that's still what it is.


That said, clearly there's a lot more resources. And the single biggest
factor of change in the last decade is maturation. The fact that the
filmmakers that you had working ten years ago and each one of these last ten
years are continuing to work. And instead of it being a world of pure
discovery where we're constantly dealing with independents that are
firsttime feature makers and coming from nowhere -- Cinderella stories which
we still have -- we also very much have an independent world which is an
established world. Independent filmmakers who may have made their first
film in the last decade or a decade ago, and continue to work and are now
almost considered to be people who can work on either side of that line
dividing what the studios and independent films are, or have fully
established themselves as credentialed independent filmmakers who go on and
continue to make new work every year or every couple of years. And it's
obvious to talk about that, but it sometimes seems to be something that is
forgotten. When people come back to me and say, you've got a lot of work in
the festival this year by filmmakers who have made previous films, and I
say, yeah, now we've got a decade or more of independent film history behind
us, and that's really something that creates a more complicated and again,
more eclectic and more broad based spectrum of independent production.


You know, we have a filmmaker in competition this year who's made films for
over a decade. So, as I say, I don't want to state the obvious because it
may seem to be so badly obvious, but it also seems to be something that
people forget. Gus Van Sant may have begun in the independent arena, may
have worked in studios and may come back to the independent arena at
different times, and there are a number of different filmmakers who are in
exactly that same kind of position. And then you may have other filmmakers,
Jarmuschs or Jon Jost, who will never work in that studio position and
never chose to.





"Our job is to help to expand that sense of the possible, open
up the opportunities for people to think about the work that gets out there.
There's a lot of work here in the festival which may or may not be
commercial, but we think the work is very distinctive, we think the work is
very original, we think the film will actually work in the marketplace, and
we think it's up to the companies to decide whether or not they can take the
risk and make those decisions to put the films out into that marketplace."





iW: In a lot of these interviews, the general message is that the kinds of
movies that used to be made in the 80's and early 90's are simply not
getting made now.


Gilmore: I don't necessarily agree with that. Because one of the things
that I feel very passionate about is that every year I see those films being
made and every year I see them in the film festival. Whether or not those
films are deemed marketable is another question. But I go back to when I
started this job, and looking at those films that people embraced and said,
"Boy we're going to do wonderful business with this." And I look at the same
exact kind of film now, and I have people saying, well, it's a difficult
marketplace now, we're not sure how broad this film is going to be. We used
to feel very happy if the film grossed $1 million, now we're looking for a
$50 million gross. You know, there are very different marketing and
distribution goals, and to say that those films don't exist that way is
patently untrue.


Does one define "American Beauty" as an independent movie? If one does or
one doesn't, one can certainly talk about it as an independent movie that
was made by a studio. One can talk about movies that are made by major
independent companies as studio films, what Miramax has done in certain
ways, and New Line, etc. And yet, we're now into a situation where I know
of at least four or five definitions of independent film, and at least two
or three of them are circular, i.e. independent films are films made by
independent companies. Or independent films are made by an independent
filmmaker. So a Kevin Smith is, by virtue of who Kevin Smith is,
automatically an independent film, and a Miramax film is, by virtue of who
Miramax is, automatically an independent film. Whereas a studio film,
regardless of whether or not it has a spirit to it or a quality to it which
is at least as independent as other kinds of work and may even have been
made for the exact same budget range, can't be talked about that way. And
all of this makes for a very difficult process of definition. What some
people have argued is that the process of definition comes from the fact
that the old archetypical independent films no longer exist, and I say
that's just not true.


And one of the things that I am able to do, that I think a lot of people I
know in the business aren't even able to do, is I base my assessment on what
the independent world is on having seen 800 films, not on having seen the 40
or 50 films that came out in the theatrical marketplace. I'm looking at 800
films that have been produced and that range of work is still very much
there. And we have it in the festival this year and we had it in the
festival last year. In fact, when we go back to those works that we say in
some sense focus on a kind of return to the original aesthetic breaking work
of a "Pi" or a "Slam," let's say, it's exactly a return to the aesthetic
groundbreaking work of earlier years. And I really wouldn't posit the
argument that I know a lot of people are going to want to say, that this
universe is now so completely changed, that that old, independent, coming
out of the blue, has no stars, doesn't have major resources behind them
[doesn't exist]. Well those works still exist. And what also exists, and
this is where I do agree with all my colleagues, is there's clearly a lot of
independent films that are not made the way they were made years ago, that
now have resources that are fueled and driven by a lot of different things,
from actors to scripts, and have mature and accomplished filmmakers behind
them. And that makes for again, my very long-winded answer, a much more
complicated, much less reductive way of understanding independent film.

iW: Bingham Ray spoke of the consolidation, or Hollywood-ization of the film
marketplace. And I think that's an area that Sundance has been credited
with, and at times criticized for. And so I think it would be interesting
to understand how you see how the festival contends with or adapts to the
business environment we exist in now, in which it's goals and structure are
so different from where it was 10 years ago.


Gilmore: One of the things that I've been told every year for the last 4
years by the people in the business [is] they start off at this time of year
saying there's going to be nothing for them at Sundance, nothing to buy,
we're not going to be buying, and don't anticipate that any films that come
out of Sundance will be able to get into the marketplace.


iW: They said that last year pretty loudly.


Gilmore: Pretty loudly, and the year before. And we can go back year by
year. And in the middle of the festival, or by the end of the festival,
they're usually waving a flag that backs off of a little bit from that
statement, but often times we have people saying the same thing. Things
like, well, with the exception of -- and they'll throw in a title -- with
the exception of "Happy, Texas," with the exception of "Tumbleweeds," or
another film that has just been purchased, there was nothing there. And one
of the things that I and my staff has always argued, is that if you really
want to assess our level of success, the point to do that is six months
after the festival, or a year after the festival, where you look at the
works that were in the festival and you say, wait a second, look at all
these works that now for various reasons all got out into the theatrical
marketplace, and in fact were as much part of that industry spectrum as they
have in every single year. What I found myself doing was literally not
responding to those comments anymore. Every year, I feel our job is to help
to expand that sense of the possible, open up the opportunities for people
to think about the work that gets out there. And so you have to come back,
not only in a narrow way, but in an agenda filled way where we say the
Sundance agenda this year is to promote these kinds of movies. In a very
eclectic and a very broad-ranging way, there's a lot of work here in the
festival which may or may not be commercial, but we think the work is very
distinctive, we think the work is very original, we think the film will
actually work in the marketplace, and we think it's up to the companies to
decide whether or not they can take the risk and make those decisions to put
the films out into that marketplace. And that's been the target pole for the
last several years.

The judgment of whether or not they're successful should not be whether they
make a certain level of finance, a certain level of domestic gross . . . It
really has to do with an overall appreciation of their quality as work, and
whether or not a movie like "Pi" as an example again, or we could go through
this almost year by year, films that were African American work or Gay and
Lesbian work or a film like "Smoke Signals" is a film that broke through a
barrier, where years ago if you said we're going to have a full Native
produced, Native directed, Native acted, Native written film that's going to
go out and gross upwards of $7.5 million dollars, which among you would call
that a failure? And yet as you know, people are so critical of different
kinds of positions in the business now, that someone would say, "Oh yeah,
but that didn't quite do the business they had anticipated, and so we're now
making a judgment about it in a different way." For us, this is what's
really clear. The festival so many times is written about unidimensionally,
people ignore the documentaries, they ignore the work that's the more
difficult work in the marketplace. That the acquisition people will make
broad-based statements and say there's nothing here to buy. And then as
certain films come out into the marketplace, or over a couple of years find
opportunities for success, there is no accountability, there's no retraction
of that kind of statement. There's no coming back to Sundance and saying,
"Oh, yeah we said the same thing last year, but this year we really mean
it."

I don't know how else to address those kinds of issues, except by saying
that if we have an agenda that agenda is to be as responsive to a
broad-based representation of independent work as we possibly can, meaning
that we should include work that is experimental as well as mainstream, that
we include work that is challenging as well as work that is accessible. And
yet, I find a lot of work in the festival this year that I'm not quite sure
how people are going to respond to because I find it extremely distinctive
work. It may be work that in fact may have a mixed level of appreciation
for it. And everyone always says that what we really need are risk-takers,
what we really need is people to actually make original films, and then they
look at them and they don't appreciate what they are. Meaning that certain
of these films are challenging films. They won't be everyone's cup of tea,
but they very much talk about the vitality of the independent world.

The conversation continues on page 2...

This article is related to: Interviews