Stranded At Sundance? Myth & Reality
by Marcus Hu
Nearly a decade ago, I formed Strand Releasing with my partners Jon
Gerrans and Mike Thomas and decided to attend this independent film
festival in Utah called the “Sundance United States Film Festival.” With
absolutely no money, I asked my friend Alberto Garcia, who was then a
programmer for the festival, if I could crash on his sofa. He obliged.
The event was intimate, friendly — not the lollapoolaza of independent
film that it has become today. Bob Hawk, who was then working for the
Film Arts Foundation (and is presenting competition entry “Trick” this
week) showed me the ropes. Back then, tickets were easy to get, agents
hadn’t caught onto the indie circuit, and thus, there was a lot less
attitude, a lot less bickering.
That year was 1990; I managed to see “Longtime Companion,” “Water and
Power,” “H-2 Worker,” and “Berkeley in the 60’s.” I stayed for three
days and was completely bitten by the indie spirit. Looking over the
past catalogues which are now dog-eared from all my referencing, I
noticed that the talent has remained consistent. Names like Everett
Lewis, Nina Menkes, James Herbert, Christine Vachon, Todd Haynes,
Allison Anders, James Schamus, Ted Hope, Christopher Munch, Gregg Araki,
etc. all started their careers at Sundance and have remained true to the
independent core at the heart of their work.
I’ve established many long term relationships during my years at
Sundance and it’s given me the opportunity to meet many artists I’ve
admired. What other festival would you find Bruce La Bruce chatting with
Faye Dunaway? Or a place where Hal Hartley professes his admiration for
Araki’s films? Or see Brad Pitt hedging at the gates of a gay festival
party hosted by Mickey Cottrell for half an hour. Or witness Harvey
Weinstein attacking his competitor.
Extraordinary and massive, there is no festival in the United States
with such status and esteem as Sundance. It has grown far beyond what it
was in 1990; since then, attaining such a level of mystique that its
reputation is defined by more myth than experience. Before going on, I’d
like to address some of these myths and the realities behind them:
Myth #1: “It’s all about who you know; it’s political.”
The Reality: Ask myself, Christine Vachon, Tom Garvin, the folks at Good
Machine or any of the execs at any of the indie studios and you know
what, we’ve all been rejected by Sundance. In fact, we’re always biting
our nails, like everyone else, waiting to hear if we’ve made it in. The
fact is — with our so-called pre-approved reputations, our submissions
are under even closer scrutiny by the festival selection committee.
Myth #2: “My film didn’t make it into Sundance; I’m ruined.”
The Reality: “Swingers,” “The Daytrippers,” and “The Cruise” are all
recent examples of films that didn’t make it into Sundance and yet
secured distributors and performed well, both critically and
commercially. There are other festivals where filmmakers can showcase
their films and remember this bit of tradition; even winning an award at
Sundance doesn’t necesssarily guarentee box office success.
Myth #3: “The Sundance selection committee chose bad films.”
The Reality: Well, first of all the committee chooses films from a crop
of what’s available. Second, the selections are done by committee —
which is comprised of human subjectivity. Films are not chosen for their
marketability; they are chosen for personal taste — this is the central
difference between a market and a film festival. The reason Sundance is
becoming closer to a market is not because the films chosen are more
commercial, but because of the high number of world premieres.
We’ve all heard complaints like these; worries and insecurities blossom
as the business and the festival expands each year. Personally, I know
many people who complain that it’s too crowded; there’s too many crappy
films. I’ve seen fights break out on a daily basis. I’ve seen executives
kick and shout (myself included) when they are told: a.) You can’t come
into the screening; it’s full; b.) You can’t come into the party; it’s
full; c.) You can’t come into my condo; you’re a dick; d.) You can’t
bring that slice of pizza into the theater. That’s also Sundance.
Despite those opportunities to mix with talented artists and make new
friends, there’s something about the atmosphere in Park City — perhaps
it’s the attitude, perhaps it’s the crowds — that increasingly makes
everyone a little punchy. Working too hard, partying too hard, most
people generally act like they did when they were in high school.
Cliques form, the acquisitions dogs all hang out together traveling in
packs. If one acquisition person walks out on a screening, often it will
cause a domino effect which I’m sure causes anxiety for the filmmakers
just waiting to slit their wrists at such a sight. Yet with all the
posturing and the power-games, the complaints and the contention, there
is one thing that unifies everyone at this festival and ultimately, it
is that we all love films.
And there is no doubt about it; Sundance has enabled this love of film,
influenced it and now it seems, reinvented this independent film world
that so many of us hold so dear. As the years go on and the Sundances
mount with increasing intensity, indie film has a cache of being cool
like never before. For better or for worse, it’s entered the realm of
the hip, Gap, MTV audience. I’m sure that it, like other fads, will fade
and someday, even Sundance will become just another film festival.
[Marcus Hu is the co-founder and co-president of Strand Releasing.
Upcoming releases include Sundance entries, “Edge of Seventeen” and “I
Stand Alone.” Hu also recently associate produced “Billy’s Hollywood
Screen Kiss,” and “Latin Boys Go to Hell” and produced Gregg Araki’s
“The Living End,” among others.]