Where’s The Juice?! Summing Up Sundance 2003
by Eugene Hernandez and twelve readers of indieWIRE
Park City in mid-January has become the key place to be for filmmakers, industry, festival programmers, journalists, film critics, and an increasing number of film fans and celeb-spotters. Given the importance of Sundance as the leading American destination for new films, indieWIRE devoted daily coverage to breaking news and reviews from the festival. One week after the festival’s conclusion, we felt it would be worth taking a look back by including the comments and criticisms of some of one dozen indieWIRE readers.
indieWIRE solicited feedback on Sundance 2003 from a number of its regular film industry readers. Comments were provided entirely by email and only responses from those who allowed their names to be used are included in this wrap-up. Respondents include Richard Abramowitz, Michelle Byrd, Mickey Cottrell, Udy Epstein, Steve Gallagher, Mary Glucksman, Anne Hubbell, Elizabeth Peters, B. Ruby Rich, Mark Urman, John Vanco, and Ryan Werner. Thank you to all of the participants for their candid comments.
Comments are organized and grouped in a number of categories below and some have been edited for length: Nostalgia, The Growing Festival, Logistics, Celebrities and Crowds, General Comments The Programming, Favorite Films, and Final Thoughts.
“When I first walked the streets of Park City in 1988, it was a lazy cowboy town where a few movies from new artists were being watch and discussed,” recalled publicist Mickey Cottrell, “I’m not espousing returning to that distant past, but let’s take a look at how to return to what makes this festival great now as then. That’s discovery, something that isn’t so easy with all the hordes swinging their swag and crushing this small, beautiful mountain village under their unsparing boots.”
“Nostalgia for years past seems to conveniently overlook the awful projection we used to suffer through and the crushes at the theaters,” explained writer B. Ruby Rich, “Well, actually, the crushes are still there. I try to go to as many press screenings as possible. I only got shut out of one of them in six days.”
THE GROWING FESTIVAL
“If there is anything to fault at the festival it is that it has grown too large for any one person to navigate,” said FILMMAKER Magazine publisher Stephen Gallagher. “It is impossible to sample films from each of the fest’s many sections, to attend panel discussions and music performances, and to network at the numerous parties and events, without the growing sense that one is missing something, often at the other end of town and with nary a shuttle bus in sight. If it were not for the welcome distraction of snow-capped mountains in one’s peripheral vision, the festival could easily be happening in New York, Los Angeles, or Toronto.”
“The fest had strong films, but lacked a sense of community. No juice! Where was the Odwalla? No wonder everyone was sick!?” said Kodak rep Anne Hubbell. “And since the hospitality suite was pretty much gone, there was nowhere to run into people and discuss films, etc. So many venues and so much going on…I heard several fest veterans say Sundance finally seemed a little too big to deal with.”
“Why is there a World Cinema (section) when there are many other U.S. fests that can do that?” asked publicist Mickey Cottrell. “The media rarely have time to cover that important section, so it’s ultimately ill served — why Can’t the focus return to important U.S. voices?”
“Each year the organizational aspects and the amenities (e.g. transportation, refreshments at theaters, technical presentation) continue to improve,” said Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm.
“The new headquarters work well, but they really need to put the hospitality rooms in closer proximity for those of us without cars,” said B. Ruby Rich, “You can spend half a day shuttling around. The upgraded Holiday is terrific. Really, in general, things just get better and better.”
“A festival without a central hub of a hospitality area is a festival lost — that was the case this year,” said Mickey Cottrell. “I’ve sampled the communications centers of fests around the world and the best of all daily gathering places for fest guests and biz folk was once at Sundance — that was the Z-Place, now Harry O’s on Main St. — it was the biggest, best fest hub I ve ever seen and today would serve that purpose just fine if the fest would pay the price to help us all have the optimum experience that this space could once again provide.”
“Everyone I spoke to was happy about the festival’s center of gravity shifting further and further away from Main Street,” said Cowboy Pictures president John Vanco, “I hope that trend continues.” Continuing he added, “For the first time in the nine or so years i’ve been going to Sundance, the shuttle system actually got worse this year, due to the traffic and overcrowding — especially over the first weekend. Other than that, the logistics of the festival were well handled.”
“I found the new festival headquarters even less convenient and effective-as-a-hub than Shadow Ridge, which had the distinct advantage of being adjacent to the Library dramatic competition screenings,” said Mary Glucksman. “The Kimball Arts Center space was virtually empty every time I made it over there making it easy to jump on one of the dozen high-speed computers without ever having to wait but it definitely wasn’t a place to spend any more time than necessary to get through e-mail, etc.”
CELEBRITIES AND CROWDS
“The new era of the stretch SUVs is not a pretty one,” observed Mickey Cottrell.
“Main Street was consistently a nightmare and represented the worst things about the event overall,” said John Vanco.
“It has become way too crowded — everywhere — and there has been far too much Hollywood and commercial infiltration,” said Mark Urman. “The sidewalks were impossible to navigate during the opening weekend, and most of the traffic seemed to come from celebrity spotters and skiers on the prowl for parties to crash. They are beginning to force filmgoers off the streets.”
“It seems like the Olympics created a need for lots more housing in the area, and now Park City is drawing younger/cheaper tourists to fill up all those extra rooms,” explained John Vanco, “Hence, the J.Lo/Britney/Beck silliness whipped the whole area into hysteria and made it nearly impossible to get around.”
“The frat party atmosphere was embarrassing,” said rep Richard Abramowitz of Abramorama. “I’m sure that it was partly the result of the three-day weekend, that brought more kids into town for celebrity-watching, but I think the spectacle events/parties contributed to the sense that it was all about partying and not so much about films.”
“Sundance continues to raise the bar among American festivals as the most inclusive, best organized, and well programmed events,” said Steve Gallagher.
“Sundance is for us the best and most important film festival we attend,” said Udy Epstein of Seventh Art Releasing. “As usual docs were the best this year.”
“Thumbs up on the films and a big thumbs up on the weather,” offered IFP/New York Executive Director Michelle Byrd, “Shoot me, I’m not a skier. The balmy weather made walking a delight.” She continued, “How did I only discover the ASCAP Café this year? How long has THAT been going on? What a zone of mellow music and a well-deserved break for walking to the top of Main Street.”
“I think it was a great year, a landmark year,” stated critic B. Ruby Rich, “Of course, it’s possible I was just happy because of the sunshine and balmy air.”
The addition of the sales office, which was brilliantly run by Joy Newhouse, was a huge improvement,” explained Ryan Werner, head of distribution at Palm Pictures. “Still without an express pass, navigating Sundance can create a million headaches.”
“I did attend a few screenings at Slamdance and Nodance and enjoyed the alternative maverick atmosphere I hope those guys will keep doing it,” wrote Udy Epstein. He was one of just a few respondents who said they attended Slamdance or an alternative festival in Park City.
“I attended a Slamdance screening and would have preferred a root canal,” said Mark Urman of ThinkFilm. “I suppose it’s seen as better than nothing from a filmmaker’s point of view. I’ll take nothing over this. The presentation was scandalous! The film I went to see started 40-45 minutes late. It may give people something to do, but why are these people in Park City in the first place, if not to see Sundance films? Why does such a layered event need more layers?”
“While I don’t often make it over to Slamdance,” wrote Ryan Werner. “I have always been impressed with their programming and look forward to catching up with it after the festival.”
“I went to Slamdance for a panel,” offered Anne Hubbell. “They had (a) better vibe for gathering and meeting people. Glad they are back on Main Street.”
“The HBO and Showtime logos are showing up more and more,” said B. Ruby Rich, “I don’t think that’s either good or bad, just a reflection of how cable and theatrical are no longer separate domains.”
“The festival can’t help but still be indispensable for those of us who inhabit the ghetto of independent films,” wrote Richard Abramowitz. “Notwithstanding the almost surreal celebrity glow (pall?) cast this year, good films were still able to distinguish themselves and the opportunity was still there to see films that would otherwise be relatively inaccessible.”
“Festival selection always appears to be a nearly arbitrary process,” wrote Richard Abramowitz. “Many of the films I saw were obviously deserving of their place in the program, some were less obviously deserving; some looked like mistakes. Same as usual.”
“I think it was very strong, and the international docs section is particularly welcome (I was amazed by ‘Balseros’ and ‘Bus 174’),” said B. Ruby Rich, “I still wish people would pay more attention to the World Cinema section; some press screenings would help, though I know they’re pinched for space to do that.” Continuing she write, “Hooray for ‘Whale Rider,’ my Toronto discovery, that charmed audiences again! Has one film ever won both Toronto and Sundance audience awards before?”
“The dramatic competition, of which I saw 12 of 16 entries, was as muscular as it’s been in recent years and the jury got it right with their awards — ‘Splendor’, ‘Station Agent’ and ‘thirteen’ were the most accomplished, original — and exhilarating — films on offer,” said writer Mark Glucksman, “The Premieres section this year seemed overly distilled by mass-market entertainments.”
“The film programming was solid, although I must admit I rarely felt challenged by it,” wrote Stephen Gallagher. “The pervasive presence of name actors, three-act structures and upbeat resolutions to most of the films I attended are certainly not unique to Sundance, but I would welcome more unconventional, even controversial, fare to balance things out.”
“It’s hard to compare years because the programmers are always at the mercy of what’s out there,” said Ryan Werner, “While this year’s dramatic competition was strong, I think that once the dust settles from the big sales, there will be less dramatic competition films that the mid-level distributors will take a chance on.”
“There seemed to be far fewer emerging filmmakers presenting work from ‘left field.’ So many films that are essentially commercial Hollywood projects, or that look like them, have flooded the screens at Sundance that the smaller films look miniscule,” said Mark Urman. “Once upon a time, a film about a dwarf in rural New Jersey would have looked ‘iffy’ and would have snuck up on audiences and landed a deal from a small, committed distributor, who would then have an opportunity to nurture a worthy film to crossover success.” Continuing the thought he explained, “This year, it came into the festival with hype, started a bidding war, and sold to Miramax — smaller distributors never had a chance. Inflation of every sort seems to have prevailed.”
“For the first time in (my) history, my favorite films were also the jury’s: ‘American Splendor’, ‘The Station Agent’, ‘Thirteen’, ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ in the competition; ‘Whale Rider,’ ‘Bus 174,’ and ‘Balseros,’ and probably more World Cinema films if only I’d been there longer,” wrote B. Ruby Rich. “My big surprise: the wonderful, under-the-radar short doc, ‘An Injury to One’ in the Frontier section.”
When asked what her favorite films were, Michelle Byrd offered, “Hands down – ‘Pieces of April.’ That Sunday morning screening at the Eccles. What a heartbreaker. And once Peter Hedges started to cry during the Q&A, I was a goner.”
Stephen Gallagher singled out: “‘All the Real Girls,’ ’28 Days Later,’ ‘Capturing the Friedmans,’ ‘Fear X,’ ‘Cremaster 3,’ ‘The Education of Gore Vidal,’ ‘Stevie,’ ‘Commandante,’ ‘Northfolk,’ ‘Thirteen,’ ‘Raising Victor Vargas,’ ‘Fits and Starts’ (short).”
“For me, the artistic standouts of the festival are ‘All the Real Girls’ and ‘American Splendor,’ said Ryan Werner. “They have the mark of directors that are going to be around for awhile and won’t be taking the first bus to Hollywood.” Continuing he added, “I’m also really curious to see the next film by the directors of ‘Quattro Noza,’ ‘What Alice Found,’ and ‘Detective Fiction’.”
“My favorite film was ‘The Weather Underground,’ a totally solid, engaging, and important work that somehow didn’t click as much with my younger friends (or the jurors),” offered Elizabeth Peters, executive director of AIVF. “There was a wistful examination of the past running through a lot of films I saw, almost as if Sundance is grappling with its own middle age. Robb Moss’s doc [‘The Same River Twice’] followed a group of folks who dropped out in a totally different way than the Weathermen. Steve James’s film [‘Stevie’] looked back on a life that he had tried to affect for the better, and the portrait of what happened to his foster brother Stevie was a thinly veiled examination of what happened to himself. It’s almost a new stage in the evolution of the diary film: looking beyond self to a sort of diary of a culture, but much more self-aware than the cultural docs of yore.”
Continuing, Elizabeth Peters said, “The Canadian film ‘What the Pictures Mean’ looked at the process of making images and stories from real life. ‘American Splendor’ was the meta of this: an illustration of a story about a man who writes stories about his life to be illustrated. At one point Harvey Pekar (I’ve forgotten if it was the illustrated Pekar or the acted Pekar) stands on a bridge and contemplates the role of the past in forming the future. Hell, even Gator was thinking on this (“I’ve read that the past doesn’t need to define the future”) in Helen Stickler’s doc ‘Stoked’.” Finally she offered, “I thought the Frontier section was especially strong this year, and it was great to see Sundance reach out to groups like ‘Silt’ and ‘Animal Charm’ – these two performances were highlights of my festival experience.”
“One of the best things about the festival this year for me was seeing the well-deserved success of the handful of veteran NYC producers who work hard, make great cinema for the right reasons, and had the great fortune of having their films get appreciated — commercially, critically, and with audiences — at Sundance,’ wrote John Vanco of Cowboy. “I will probably remember this Sundance as the one where my producer friends — specifically, Jeff Levy-Hinte (“Thirteen”), Scott Macaulay (“Raising Victor Vargas”), Mary Jane Skalski (“The Station Agent”), and Ted Hope (“American Splendor”) — each hit such high career points, especially in such a strongly Hollywood-flavored festival, it’s nice when the good guys win.”
“What I appreciate about the festival is that the same energy remains when you go into a screening room,” wrote Ryan Werner. “While the celebrity quotient and marketing ploys have certainly escalated in less than appealing ways, you can still feel that excitement as the films begins to roll which I don’t think can be felt anywhere else in quite the same way.”
“About the crowding: Sundance is a victim of its own success in this regard and there’s no way back from here,” wrote Mary Glucksman. “How they adapt to overpopulation, so-called ambush marketing and non-fest-related celebrity stumping is clearly one of the key issues organizers need to address but I can’t think of any easy solutions. While a healthy year for the festival on all fronts given cautious buying due to the current distribution climate, Sundance has become a monster in a box.”
“A year and a half after 9/11 and 10/6 (the start of U.S. bombing of Afghanistan), it’s really time for filmmakers to start dealing with the moment we’re living in,” summed up B. Ruby Rich. “With the war sabers rattling, the world as we know it is up for grabs. But you’d never guess from the ‘product’ in Park City. C’mon, folks, rise to the challenge!”
“I think Sundance Channel has set a new high standard for gift bags which I dare anyone to beat,” said Ryan Werner. While Udy Epstein offered, “Getting the goody bag out of the Sundance party on crutches was hazardous — the frenzy! I’ve never seen so many industry executives so eager to put their hands on so many free items without any inhibition, whatsoever.” Continuing he added, “An unnamed industry exec pushed right by me (while I was trying to stay standing) and said ‘Sorry for that but I got to take advantage of your situation.’ He did but I persisted and got mine as well carrying it out on my back.”