PARK CITY 2001: David vs. Goliath, Small Films Battle Industry Heavyweights in Competition
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/01.19.01) --"Oh, that's not fair," says Michael Cuesta, director of the Sundance competition film, "L. I. E." when I tell him that the producers of another competition film, "Memento" also produced "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery." It's a familiar complaint that comes from filmmakers after the line-up is announced for each and every Sundance. Just read a few lines from indieWIRE's disgruntled discussion boards:
"Sundance is a sham and should be boycotted by true fans of INDEPENDANT (sic) cinema..."
"Sundance is all about photo ops these days. It's for those stupid actors who want to feel good about themselves by making so-called character driven indie films as if they could tell a good script from a bad one."
"I don't even think of these films (by and large -- maybe one or two of them are truly "cutting-edge") as indie. They are made by already well-known directors or darlings of the festival."
And these are some of the tamer quotes.
There's no arguing that the Sundance line-up cuts a wide swath of movies, some more "independent" than others. But as John Cooper, Associate Director of Programming, notes, "It's not any different than any other year, and I've been doing this for 11 years," he says. "That's the way we program -- we're not afraid to go to the top of the heap, financially, and we're not afraid to put films in competition that are made with nothing."
In this year's Dramatic Competition -- the selection that has given life to such diverse films as "sex, lies, and videotape," "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happy, Texas," there are movies executive produced by such Hollywood insiders as Michael De Luca (New Line's former president of production), Drew Barrymore ("Charlie's Angels") and Hunt Lowry (Disney's "The Kid," "A Time to Kill"), and produced by Andrew Stevens and Elie Samaha ("Battlefield Earth," "Get Carter"), and the aforementioned "Memento" team, Suzanne and Jennifer Todd ("Austin Powers," "G.I. Jane".)
For some filmmakers at the opposite end of the spectrum, the competition can seem daunting. "It's going to be hard for us with these bigger budgeted movies, with their parties, hats and T-shirts," says Cuesta. "They have a marketing mentality, like we're going to brand this thing like crazy. I came from advertising; I know what that's like. And 'L. I. E.' is a modest film," he worries, "so we're not going to be at that level."
Cuesta, a commercials director (he made "The Other White Meat" spot for the National Pork Council), is coming to Sundance for the first time with his debut feature, "L. I. E.," a film he shot in 24 days, and describes as "a story of adolescence" with "unexpected twists and turns." Cuesta has an experienced support team: producer's rep Stephen Beers and publicist Jeremy Walker. He's even got a "star" in the film: Golden Globe nominee Brian Cox. But how can he realistically compete with Drew Barrymore for attention?
Despite initial concerns, Cuesta is excited at the challenge, "I'm actually blown away that we actually have a shot, competitive-wise, in terms of being recognized against these Hollywood people," he says. "In a way, it's cool that Sundance has allowed that to happen, because we're up against these heavyweights, and for lack of a better term, we can win." "We hope the quality of the film speaks for itself," adds Cuesta. "And that's my marketing strategy."
"We thought it was more of a Slamdance film," admits Stephanie Bennett, the producer and star of "Some Body" -- the story of a confused 20-something woman -- and the only Dramatic Competition entry shot on digital video. "When you think of Sundance, you think, if you're really low-budget independent, you don't have a chance," adds "Some Body" debuting producer-director Henry Barrial. Now that they're in, though, Bennett and Barrial, a pair of Los Angeles Special Ed teachers who made the movie for two years on and off during weekends and nights with a local theater troupe, feel their small-fry status is an asset. "We are the dark horse and we're hoping that's actually beneficial," says Barrial.
The "Some Body" team, who describe their movie as "so intimate, it's almost uncomfortable," feel they have an added advantage that no big budget or name actor can compete with: "We come from a more organic place," says Geoffrey Pepos, the film's producer-cinematographer-editor-composer.
Not everyone is worried about the competition, however. "We love Drew!" says the undaunted Cory McAbee, director-star of "The American Astronaut," a film which he delightfully describes as "a musically driven low-tech sci-fi space western . . . and it