all of those plans to write during the festival? sucked away by professional obligations…
I loved Sundance this year. There, I said it. As a programmer, I can only dream of the constant scrutiny and complaining leveled at the festival by the various factions that make up the filmmaking, press, industry and public audiences that swarm Park City, Utah every January. And yet, I am consistently impressed by the hard work that the Sundance staff accomplishes; no film program will perfectly cater to any individual’s tastes, but Sundance always bears fruit if you’re willing to take the time to look.
This year’s festival was no exception; I saw 30 films in Park City, and I really enjoyed about 25 of them, which is a great feat, all things considered. Add to it the intimacy of the parties I was able to attend, the slew of familiar and friendly new faces unveiled from beneath a pile of scarves and hats, the relatively consistent shuttle transportation, and the wicked cold that made sitting in a theater so inviting (and, upon reflection, felt warm compared to the freezing temperatures at home in New York), and I can’t help but think of this year’s festival as a real success.
That said, any time the biggest, most recognized American film festival tries to cast itself as the home of some sort of a rebellion, it is bound to open itself up to unnecessary criticism. The marketing campaign the festival waged to reclaim the independent high ground after a decade of serving (and helping foster the collapse of) the interests of the mini-majors was actually legitimized by most of the films, but the contrast between Sundance’s artistic message and the nature of the coverage of the festival (that is, focused tightly on the sales market and the meaning of the market’s machinations) is a reminder that no matter how hard you try to rebrand it, Sundance is the big dog because of the way in which it embraces its economic function; none of the thousands of filmmakers who submitted to the festival, none of the film buyers who spent thousands of dollars each on passes, none of the press covering the festival did so because they were interested in being a part of a rejection of cinematic commerce. The Sundance dream remains the dream of the big sale and as long as it does, the commercial interests of the independent film community will be intimately tethered to the festival; a more rebellious campaign might have been to sell that reality back to the industry as an honest embrace.
About Half Of The Ticket Holder’s Line For Blue Valentine, January 25, 2010, 7:45 AM, Racquet Club, Park City, UT
For all of the tension that exists between the festival’s self-imagined message and its communal function, everything comes down to the films, created by a wide array of artists with different visions and culled from a massive pile of submissions into a single program. This year’s program was impressive not as a statement against the market, but because it seemed to be advocating for an older idea of the market, one in which independent films were still a powerful force in shaping the national conversation. The 2010 festival felt like a throwback in more ways than one; the narrative films featured several small scale, domestically themed projects that have defined the independent film community for years and the documentary program once again proved to be consistently excellent in its exploration of politics and the social conditions that shape our society. Even at its most populist, Sundance has never been a bellwether of national taste, but more of an idea and snapshot of the state of American independent moviemaking, a home for art whose meaning exists outside of the methods of how the films are distributed and seen.
Unfortunately, the independent film community continues to struggle for answers to the diminishing returns the films are finding at the box office (and in their influence on our idea of the American cinema); the films may be of the same or better quality, but the world keeps changing and the industry is in the midst of a struggle to keep up. Sundance didn’t offer any solutions to these problems, focusing instead on its primary role as discoverer and promoter of new films, but it is the fragmented vision of the future of the business that kept the festival feeling both relevant and, for me, a little nostalgic. Until we have a comprehensive strategy and broad consumer adoption of a meaningful solution for the dozens of Video On Demand/ Internet streaming/ TV device/ Theatrical release problems that confront the independent sector of the industry, solutions that will ultimately be driven by Hollywood’s interests (on how many platforms did Avatar open? One.), the festival world can only do so much in its limited window of opportunity to shape the business. In the meantime, showing great movies will have to do, and while, like any festival, this year’s event had some clunkers (makes you wonder what the thousands of films on the rejection pile look like), there were also plenty of films to love.
Separate posts on the Narrative and Documentary films to follow… stay tuned (and I mean it this time)…