In "Bass Ackwards", one of the entries in Sundance Film Festival's recently launched low budget NEXT section, an unkempt loner (Linas Phillips, also the writer-director) -- having lost both his job and his girlfriend -- drives through a series of lush American landscapes in a cramped Volkswagen bus, hoping to find a better life. Considering that vehicle's now-famous association with "Little Miss Sunshine," a major Sundance breakout in 2006, the metaphor here writes itself: "Bass Ackwards," a comparatively small film not destined for the kind of massive bidding war among distributors caused by "Little Miss Sunshine," looks like a Sundance movie in search of a home.
But, like its solemn protagonist, the movie has in fact already found several homes. After its Sundance premiere, the producers plan to release "Bass Ackwards" on multiple platforms, ranging from iTunes to video-on-demand. The approach is adventurous but also quite practical, because "Bass Ackwards" makes for a difficult sell. It unfolds as the sort of meandering adventure that some audiences may consider a chore while others herald it as quietly meditational. Although the "Bass Ackwards" team have likely made the right choice in evading the search for a conventional distributor, the movie faces plenty of uncertainty in the road ahead -- as does much of Sundance's new NEXT section, and any number of other Sundance hopefuls entering Park City unsold.
"Bass Ackwards" also provides an accurate phrase for describing the state of the industry, which now contains plenty of experimentation, but very few predictable results for the discovery and distribution of independent films.
Confusing times call for desperate measures. Sundance's programmers, undoubtedly acting with the best of intentions, have provided a whimsical category to help boost the stature of smaller movies less likely to catch the wave of festival buzz. At this point, unfortunately, the NEXT lineup has failed to build the anticipation of quality. Most of the movies in the section that I have seen or heard about were surely made on the cheap, but none scream for attention, suggesting that NEXT emerged from an abstract concept rather than as a means of making room for other kinds of submissions.
Additionally, the creation of a handful of slots for newly completed low budget cinema immediately invites disdain for its omissions. Why, many festivalgoers familiar with such things have wondered, does the section not include the latest offering from Aaron Katz -- an acknowledged virtuoso of handcrafted cinematic lyricism? It will instead debut in March as SXSW in Austin, TX.
"Lovers of Hate", meanwhile, director Bryan Poyser's shrewdly intellectual and economically made story about two rival siblings (Alex Karpovsky and Chris Doubek, whose character spends most of the running time hiding in the shadows watching his ex-girlfriend and brother get naked) has wound up in competition. Great, but given its constrained budget and emerging talent, the movie seems exactly like the sort of thing that could build a following in NEXT rather than run the risk of getting buried among the big boys. I could make a similar case for "Daddy Longlegs" the ambitious sophomore feature by Josh and Benny Safdie that premiered to positive notices at Cannes but will slip onto VOD courtesy of IFC Films the same day that it premieres at Sundance.
Perhaps there is a gem hiding in Sundance's NEXT section that will render all this skepticism moot. By that same token, a worst case scenario lingers: That NEXT struggles from a bass ackwards syndrome of its own making.
Granted, those of us currently on the ground in Park City have barely adjusted to the altitude, much less found a chance to explore NEXT and the rest of the Sundance program in depth. At least 200 movies will screen over the next ten days. Still, many of the potential breakouts sounds like the conventional sort: "Hesher," "Holy Rollers," "Blue Valentine" and other narrative features might blow audiences away, but they contain name talent and mid-size budgets. The documentaries gaining early attention, such as "The Tillman Story" and "Lucky," come from directors whose earlier movies already left dents in Sundance history. A lot of the Premieres section, such as "Jack Goes Boating" and "The Extra Man," sounds fantastic -- but also familiar.
If Sundance brings a slew of new names to the forefront this year, more power to it. The recent decision to make a trio of NEXT films (including "Bass Ackwards") available for rental on YouTube tomorrow might make a difference. No matter what happens, however, the familiar product will continue to make headlines, edging out the importance of heralding important new voices. Perhaps, then, NEXT goes beyond its stature as a section, serving as a symbolic plea for the survival of independent film as it stumbles blindly into the future.
Eric Kohn will be reviewing films daily in Park City at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and also covering the Slamdance Film Festival.