PARK CITY 2002: Sundance's Unsung Heroes
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 01.12.02) -- Producers are filmmakers too. This fact is often ignored at the Sundance Film Festival, which is designed (rightfully) to celebrate the American indie auteur like no other event in this country. But take a look at the fine print in this year's Sundance catalogue and you'll see the names: independent producers, unaffiliated with any studio or company, returning to Park City to shepherd their latest projects into the marketplace.
"Producing is a lot more creative than people imagine," says producing vet Andrea Sperling ("But I'm a Cheerleader"), who returns to the festival this year with Tony Abrams and Adam Larson Broders' "Pumpkin," a story about a sorority girl and a disabled man. "I still get a lot of satisfaction from producing movies that are difficult to get made and helping artists get their visions seen."
While past festivals have been marked by the dominance of indie bigwigs like Good Machine and Killer Films, this year's Sundance slate contains a number of intrepid personalities like Sperling who haven't fully embraced the larger filmmaking systems, be they Hollywood or Indiewood. It's a position producers both praise and lament. The upside: creative freedom; the downside: a constant struggle to stay afloat.
"You can't say enough about the freedom," says Alexa Vogel, who together with Joseph Infantolino make up Beech Hill Films, producers of the Sundance 2000 entry "Our Song" and this year's "Face," director Bertha Bay-Sa Pan's contemporary urban drama about three generations of Chinese women. "It's true that none of us make more than two cents to live on, but we're able to control the process and move it ahead as quickly as possible. There is enough benefit in that." Adds Infantolino, "It also allows new talent to work organically without interference, and that's more fun."
George LaVoo agrees. LaVoo produced the Sundance 1999 entry "Getting to Know You" and returns to this year's fest with Patricia Cardoso's "Real Women Have Curves," a story of a Mexican American woman who tries to live independently from her family. "The freedom to go with your instincts is so important," says LaVoo. "It's possible to get that kind of creative freedom with larger organizations, but if you can keep yourself free from those ties, you get a sense of doing something outside the norm."
Andrew Fierberg, producer of such Sundance notables as "Nadja" and 1997's Dramatic Prize Jury winner "Sunday," is back in Park City this year with two films: Steven Shainberg's "Secretary" and Jill Sprecher's "Thirteen Conversations about One Thing." For Fierberg, staying small has allowed his "ma and pa grocer" company Double A Films to work without restrictions. "If you look at Good Machine ("In the Bedroom"), Killer Films ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch") and Open City ("Three Seasons"), you have to wonder what kinds of films they're working on now," says Fierberg. "Everyone might be making a living, but I believe that as these companies get bigger, they lose more and more control of what they're doing."
But not everyone wants to avoid the studios and large independents. "I'm really tired," says Dolly Hall ("High Art," "johns"), a producer on this year's "Tadpole," director Gary Winick's DV coming-of-age story starring Sigourney Weaver and Bebe Neuwirth. "It's exhausting. I spend all my time raising money and I don't even have time to read scripts anymore."
Hall, like Sperling, is at a point in her career where she'd prefer to partner with other producers in order to share the workload. "At a certain point," says Hall, "you want a support system with someone taking care of the overhead so it isn't such a day-to-day struggle."
For the next nine days, Sundance will present an all-too-familiar challenge for these producing professionals, who have each developed their own strategies for launching movies in Park City. "You need to do it all before you get there," says Hall, reflecting the opinion of many of her fellow producers. "You have to make the phone calls. You pitch it to the [distributors] to wind them up and get them excited before they get there."
"It's especially tough for the difficult movies," says Hall. "All the acquisition execs are running around with their heads cut off. They haven't even eaten dinner, they're sleep-deprived and they have altitude sickness. And then they have to see a movie they have to work at to understand? Those pre-Sundance phone calls are totally important."
Since Sperling's "Pumpkin" is one of the few competition films with a distribution deal (United Artists), her main concern is audience reaction in Park City. "The way the film will be handled from this point on depends on how it plays at Sundance," says Sperling, "so I definitely want to be there every step of the way and see how people are reacting, from United Artists to the critics to the press." Sperling will also be keeping busy in Park City promoting director Jamie Babbit's short film "Stuck" and pitching the next project from the "Pumpkin" directing team.
Fierberg is sympathetic to Sperling's efforts. "It's not just about selling the film," he says. "It's about meeting people for your next film. It's a launch; it's the first time your film is going to be seen by a big audience, and you have to make the most of it. This is the premier showcase for American independent film; there are not a lot of other options."
Beech Hill's Fogel and Infantolino know from their experience with the critically acclaimed "Our Song" how cruel Park City can be. The film was sadly overlooked during Sundance 2000 and gained attention only after screening well in New York. "There are certain things you can't control at the festival," says Fogel. "It's a struggle, but so far it's been a satisfying experience with 'Face.' Right now, things are okay. At least rent's paid for this week."