So there we were at Sundance -- aspiring producers armed with a project. It was just before 10 pm on the first Sunday of the festival, and Ron and I tried to get into a party with only one ticket between us. One of us entered, got our hand stamped and promptly exited, attempting the old “rub the stamp on the other guy’s hand” routine. The party bouncer wasn’t amused and refused to let us in.
As fate would have it, we found ourselves across the street from the Prospector and decided to take a chance on a movie. It happened to be the very first screening of “sex, lies, and videotape." There were 50 people in the audience. The movie started and we were mesmerized. We had no idea who the director was. But you could tell immediately that this was a real filmmaker, completely on his game. There were compelling flawed characters. It was personal and cinematic. Most remarkably, Ron didn’t fall asleep.
In the Q&A afterwards, I showcased my marketing skills by insisting that the title “sex, lies, and videotape” would never work and needed to be changed immediately. After the screening, we maneuvered our way through a throng of well-wishers to congratulate director Steven Soderbergh. We introduced ourselves and told him about "This Boy's Life." He said it very much sounded like a book he always wanted to make into a movie called "King of the Hill." We agreed to keep talking.
By the end of the week, “sex, lies…” had become a sensation, and Steven was being chased through snow banks on Main Street, everyone desperate to hear about his next project. Over coffee, Steven somehow expressed a willingness to work with us. Ron and I read “King of the Hill” and had the good sense to change directions and pursue the book Steven wanted to do. Universal stepped up to develop “King of the Hill." Suddenly, Ron and I were producers with a studio film.
In looking back, there were many aspects of Sundance '89 that shaped and defined our path. In our early days, we didn’t have a track record and no one would send us scripts, so we specialized in books like “This Boys Life” and “King of the Hill” that were obscure or had slipped through the cracks. Our later film “Election” was based on an unpublished manuscript that was sitting in author Tom Perrotta’s desk drawer because the publishing world had deemed it hopelessly trapped between literary and young adult fiction. “Cold Mountain” had been passed on by every studio in town before we picked it up at Book Soup. It dawned on us that you didn’t need a development fund to shop material and establish yourself as a producer. You didn’t need rights. If you read a book that you liked and there weren’t a lot of people competing with you, all you needed to do was figure out how to align yourself with the right partner or emerging filmmaker. Years later, Soderbergh joked that when we told him we owned “This Boy’s Life," he didn’t realize we meant we only owned a copy of the book.
Seeing an independent film at Sundance by a first-time filmmaker, connecting with them and collaborating on their first studio film was a pattern that Ron and I repeated many times after “King of the Hill." We saw “Citizen Ruth” here and connected with Alexander Payne to make “Election” at MTV/Paramount. We saw “In the Bedroom” here and later joined up with Todd Field to make “Little Children” at New Line. We’re drawn to big and small films alike but our sweet spot has been in the seams between the independent and the studio worlds.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we learned at Sundance 1989 was that it doesn't always go the way you anticipate but that that can be a good thing. In other words, you show up at Sundance, you get thrown out of a party, you see a great movie and suddenly anything’s possible.