By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 30, 2012 at 11:43AM
On Sunday morning, Sundance Film Festival director of programming Trevor Groth and director John Cooper concluded the event with a morning gathering for the festival community called "Film Church," where they looked back on the last 10 days before heading back to Los Angeles to get some well-earned rest.
"I'm going to take it slow this week and not do too much," Groth told Indiewire later in the day. "I'm going to try to let my voice rest for a while." But first, he took some time to reflect on this year's experience one last time.
How was Film Church?
It went very well. We had some special guests and showed some clips, using a talk-show format. I think everyone there really enjoyed it. We've done it for a number of years, but last year we changed the format. Prior to that, we'd have an invited guest give a sermon on whatever they wanted. Last year, we decided that [John] Cooper and I would give everyone who showed up an insider's guide looking back at the festival, telling some stories that maybe they didn't know about. This year, we expanded it a little bit. ["Beasts of the Southern Wild"] Benh Zeitlin came, ["The Queen of Versailles" director] Lauren Greenfield came, ["Young and Wild" director] Marialy Rivas came, and [The Salt Lake City Tribute critic] Sean Means came as well. Everyone had a good time.
Do you think the festival met the expectations that various people had going into it?
I think so. When you look back and try to evaluate the festival, there are various constituencies: There are attendees who come just to watch films, the critics, the industry, the acquisitions people, and ultimately our sponsors are part of it as well. I know that from our perspective it was a great success. I can tell the audiences were truly engaged and provoked at times, but very responsive to the films. Our sponsors were happy. The business was solid. The right films are going to the right companies for the right prices. Hopefully that will continue even after the festival. Critically, it is what it is. Critics found films to champion and some they didn't respond to--but that's just the nature of it every year.
Reporting on the deals at the festival, The New York Times concluded that it was a good but not great year. At the same time, it seemed there were a lot of sales. What did you make of the marketplace?
Ultimately, I only care secondarily about that. It's great because it's part of the process for getting these films out there so they reach as big an audience as possible. But that's commerce. We're more about the art. Those companies have to make money and if they see a way of doing it they'll do it; if not, they won't. We pay attention to it and try to help as much as possible, but it doesn't affect how the festival works. The Times piece was responding to the two $7 million deals we had last year and how we didn't have that this year, although "The Surrogate" was picked up for a pretty hefty price. I don't think that's a bad thing. Films should go for the right value and that's the way distributors can sustain them. I'm pretty happy with the business, especially Magnolia for stepping up during the latter part of the festival and making a lot of acquisitions. They were really waiting to see what they wanted. Once they got active, it made everything feel perfect.
Were you surprised by any acquisitions or the lack thereof?
Did "Safety Not Guaranteed" sell yet?
That's the one. I think that's a great film and a huge crowdpleaser. Really smart, won the screenwriting prize. It's my mom's favorite film of the festival (laughs). That, to me, is a surprise. I know it'll go and it's just a matter of time, but I'm surprised it wasn't snatched up. [Editor's note: "Safety Not Guaranteed" was picked up by FilmDistrict shortly after this interview.]
Personally, I was more interested in the films that didn't receive universal acclaim. What do you make of "Simon Killer," "The Comedy" and "Compliance," which inspired walkouts and acclaim from different places?
I agree with you 100%. Look, when we're programming this festival, we see films that we know will be well received by just about everyone. And that's great. We love to have those. Then there are films that are going to be divisive, and they're going to challenge and provoke people. Some people will question why we show those films, while others absolutely love them. I think it's important for us to have a mix of the divisive and the universally beloved films. You can't just strive for one or the other. For me, to see the films that received polarized reactions find real champions makes me really happy. It doesn't always happen that way. Some years we've shown films where I know why I've shown them but they didn't work. This year, those kind of films were very successful at doing what they intended to do.
Sundance has been viewed through the prism of the "Little Miss Sunshine" narrative for five years now. Do you feel like the festival is in a different place from when that movie came along, landed a huge deal and became seen as the prototypical Sundance breakout story?
I do think it's in a different place as far as the industry is concerned. People are less concerned about looking for that home run, trying to scoop up the film that breaks out at the festival and make tens of millions of dollars on it. I don't think that's the mentality. Now they're just looking for sustainability.
There were a number of films in NEXT and New Frontier that got a lot of acclaim. "Room 237" was a definite buzz movie, as were "Compliance" and "Sleepwalk With Me." Do they benefit from being programmed in these areas of the festival as opposed to the main competitions, where they might automatically get more attention?
We put a lot of thought into where films get programmed. None of it is random. A lot of that is about where a film is best served. Sometimes for people to discover a film can be a benefit for it as opposed to us putting it in competition and putting that stamp on it. If people come in with expectations, you're not giving them that sense of discovery. This year more than ever before, it may have served some films better to be out of competition. It was really great to see the interest in "Room 237," and the films in midnight really popped, too. NEXT continued its evolution; people are looking for singular voices there. I love to hear people say, "That film should've been in competition." It means we have a deep program with great films all over the festival.
Speaking of great films at the festival, let's talk about the awards. First of all, what happened to Parker Posey, who was supposed to host the festival but couldn't make it at the last minute?
She fell ill. I think she got a little dehydrated. It was no joke. I think she's doing better but at the moment she really couldn't do it.
Putting Katie Aselton onstage in her place made it look like she was inherited that role as a Sundance darling.
You could definitely read into that, but none of it was intentional. We were really looking forward to Parker hosting. We had some great material for her and she's just such a star in that context. It would've been great, but we did the best we could. It was very admirable that Katie stepped in. Everything was on the fly, but everyone embraced that spirit and had a good time.
Were you surprised by any of the outcomes of the awards?
Honestly, I was less surprised by these awards than usual. You never know what you're going to get with jurors. That's fine and healthy. But considering the way the films had been playing throughout the week, I wasn't that surprised. Kirby Dick winning an audience award for "The Invisible War," which is such intense material--that was maybe a surprise. But when you think about it, the audience had a really emotional connection to the material.
The ceremony also included a eulogy for Bingham Ray. When the news of his death came out last week, how did you and your staff immediately respond?
Obviously, anyone who knew Bingham will always remember the 2012 festival as the year he passed away. It affected us profoundly. It's hard to even think about moving on when you hear that news. I honestly believe that, with Bingham's passion for film--and everyone who knew him knew that passion--the last thing he would want is to prevent people from celebrating the films and going to see them. So we decided to go on with the show while keeping him in our hearts and minds during the festival. It's such a tragedy, but he'll always be remembered. We owe a large part of this industry to his work and his passion.
At the time he died, Ray had moved from the world of distribution to programming, which some might see as the reflection of a general trend in the way film festivals have evolved. How is Sundance impacted by that evolution?
We're always looking forward. For us, it's about what we can do to help filmmakers connect with audiences. Whatever that will be, we're open to it. I think that, as technology continues to advance, we're going to have to be one step ahead of it as far as how we can benefit filmmakers. Our Artist Services, which just launched, is a step toward that. For a long time, the way we could help filmmakers was by having a place where films could get acquired. Now, the technology provides other opportunities even if films don't get acquired. We want to help facilitate that as well. I don't have anything to tell you about big changes for next year, but we have a little less than 365 days to look into it and see what we can do.