What to make of The 2011 Sundance Film Festival? Following one of the most critically successful years in the festival’s history, a year that saw Blue Valentine , Winter’s Bone , The Kids Are Alright , I Am Love , Animal Kingdom, Enter The Void, Please Give, A Film Unfinished, Gasland , Restrepo, Exit Through The Gift Shop , Waste Land , Last Train Home, The Oath, The Tillman Story and many others find tremendous acclaim, 2011 always had its work cut out for it. I was only able to see 35 feature films at Sundance and I missed many crucial entries, so I can’t make any grand statements about the critical or commercial aspirations of the movies in the festival as a whole (lest they be taken worth a grain of salt), but 2011 feels to me the year the recession came home to roost. The scaled back financing and production of independent films in 2009 and 2010 seems to have driven filmmakers to utilize a more modest scale; only a handful of narrative and non-fiction films at the festival seemed willing to risk it all in order to execute large, ambitious ideas. Many of the films seemed small and intimate, without the grand aspirations of previous years. Of course, this theory is ironic if only because Sundance’s submissions were at their highest ever, which indicates a proliferation of work and, to be honest, a real concern for me about the state of independent film at the moment.
But why worry? If 2011 marks the line in the sand for independent film financing in a recession driven investment climate, it also marked the complete opposite in the distribution world; a return to the glory days of pure, unadulterated content speculation. While few films seemed to capture the collective imaginations of audiences, that didn’t prevent distributors from diving in head first into the marketplace and bringing home one of the largest hauls of movies in the festival’s history. As deal after deal was announced over the course of the festival, a simultaneous feeling of relief and head-scratching bewilderment settled over Park City. After reading pieces on “new distribution models” to the point of nausea over the past two years, it was nice to see that the one thing exactly no one was talking about at Sundance this year was self-distribution; everyone smelled the blood in the water and, in many cases, got a distribution deal out of the ensuing frenzy. Content continues to reign supreme and, after looking at a strong year at the indie box office for last year’s films, reasonable, level-headed deals were popping up all over Sundance; a filmmaking community that had given up (for the most part) on the idea of a traditional distribution model was suddenly at the center of a new indie economic boom.
All of which leaves me to wonder about next year, about the pressure on these modest films to perform across multiple platforms, about the implicit faith of distributors and buyers in Sundance’s curation process and about what that all means for the next eleven months in the film festival world. If buyers can find their way to smaller festivals and if festival programmers (like me) can work hard to find some hidden gems lurking at the margins, it might be a time when deals get done all over the place; if this year’s buying spree proves anything, it at once cements the dominance of the Sundance Film Festival as the premiere market festival in the US and, given many of the films that sold, raises my eyebrows; if the rest of us can get our shit together, we have a very strong chance to redefine the distributor’s buying process by working on the slew of films that are still out there, waiting to be picked up. This feels like a real opportunity to me, a year when young and emerging talent has been given a shot to see what it can do in the marketplace; if the American film festival community can continue to discover and nurture new work, maybe we’ll find our own place in the process. Maybe January in Park City isn’t the end of the cycle for these films, but the starting line in a race that, suddenly, we all have a chance to win.