Exactly one year before the inauguration of a new U.S. president, Democratic candidates have been talking a lot about the word 'change' in their primary campaigns. Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford immediately picked up on the term in Thursday's opening remarks during a welcome press conference that kicked off the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. "The word 'change' has become big in this past year," Redford noted. "One of the things that Sundance was structured to do is to adapt and to change, we are adaptable in that sense," he continued, "We adapt to the change that comes from the filmmakers themselves as they document the world around them, as the world itself changes."
"Artists as agents of change," Redford reiterated, "When you think of change, I am looking at what artists are doing to complement or further change. That's what the festival is really about..."
Changes can be seen in Sundance's move to distribute the festival's short film selections more widely via numerous new outlets (see related indieWIRE article), an increased focus on the New Frontier section which showcases bold forms of storytelling (see article below), and even in the news that the festival is showcasing some 58 first-time feature filmmakers. "Basically, we are an adaptive organization and on the other hand our mission at the core remains the same," Redford explained on Thursday.
"What excites me this year are the amount of new filmmakers, because this is a place for discovery. There are more new filmmakers in this festival than we have had ever before [since the festival's early years]," he boasted. "There is a new spirit that seems to be emerging with the new filmmakers and their new voices...I am excited to have you all see it."
Picking up on the comments, Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore emphasized the event's role in debuting the work of new talent. Singling out the significance of current award season favorites Paul Thomas Anderson and The Coen Brothers, both of whom launched their careers at Sundance, Gilmore predicted big things for some of this year's new filmmakers.
"It is really gratifying for us to look at this year's festival and really feel that this is a festival that above all I think we are going to look back upon some years from now and say, 'look at the filmmakers that emerged from this festival'," Gilmore said. "Because it's really quite exciting to have all of the debuts that we have here."
The 58 debut feature filmmakers, along with the 100 feature films that are coming into the festival in search of U.S. distribution, have stirred a lot of talk about the potential for this year's Sundance films. But its also increased the emphasis on the market side of Sundance. Some would say the market has become the dominant aspect of the festival. Though, Redford would likely disagree.
"That's just an outgrowth or extension of our original mission," Redford noted at the press conference, "[The Sundance Film Festival] became a market. It wasn't a market to begin with... I think it's important to know that when you are talking about the buzz or the so-called celebrity factor."
But, how is the increased attention on the market, and the market's focus on star-driven films affecting the festival?
"I am sometimes a litle bit bemused by the talk of the major actors driving the work, because in independent film, that is not always the case," Geoff Gilmore noted on Thursday. "The major factor may be part of getting the film financed, a lot of the work isn't driven by the high profile actor.
The problem is that the marketplace is so competitive and so crowded." [Eugene Hernandez]
Exploriing a New Frontier
Praising the Sundance Film Festival's second New Frontier on Main program, the fest's director of programming John Cooper opened an informal gathering of artists, press and organizers on the lower level of the Main Street mall Thursday. "I've been [at Sundance] for 19 years and I get a lot of questions on what Sundance was like 'back when...' Well, we're going to look back on [the New Frontier program] and ask about this as 'Sundance back then.'"
Still evolving from its launch last year, New Frontier on Main is a space spotlighting artist installations, live performances and panels in addition to a DJ lounge and cafe. "Last year, we were worried people wouldn't come, but they came in droves," said Sundance's Shari Frilot, who has championed New Frontier. Set up as a primarily social interactive space, visitors can not only view art, but participate. One such installation by artist Daniel Rozin called "Snow Mirror" is a large screen of "black and white snow," not unlike what happens when the cable TV suddenly fails. But upon further observation, the seemingly inactive screen gravitates to the contours of the observer's image reflecting the movements and whims of the person or group.
"Their work speaks to a film festival audience and their work speaks to the interaction of art, film and emerging media," observed Frilot while introducing this year's group of sixteen artists and upcoming programs. "[Sundance] doesn't just grow in one way, it's the intersection of art," said Cooper about New Frontier and the festival's efforts to expand its reach in other realms of creative expression. "We'll look back on this [someday] and think, 'well, back when we were in this basement...'"
Artists participating in this year's New Frontier include: Robert Boyd ("Xanadu"), Doug Aitken ("Sleepwalkers"), Cause Collective ("Along the Way"), Jim Campbell ("Home Movies 300"), Graffiti Research Lab ("L.A.S.E.R. Tag"), Hasan Elahi ("Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project"), Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse ("Invisible Threads: A Virtual Sweatshop in Second Life"), Daniel Rozin ("Peg Mirror" and "Snow Mirror"), Jennifer Steinkamp ("Mike Kelley"), Eddo Stern ("Darkgame" and "Best Flame War Ever"), Marina Zurkow ("Poster Children" and "Heroes of the Revolution"), Cory Arcangel in collaboration with Paper Rad ("Next Year's Band News Bears"), Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky, that Subliminal Kid ("A Work in Progress--Terra Nova: The Antarctic Suite").
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.