Robert Redford was asking for trouble at the opening press conference for the Sundance Film Festival this year. The event, which found the festival founder sitting before a roomful of journalists alongside festival director John Cooper and Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam, followed its standard formula: Redford always begins by making a few general comments about this year’s lineup and how it relates to his overall mission. This year was no exception, but it only took a few minutes for the Sundance Kid to drop an accidental bombshell.
“This is the only festival that I know about in the world that is purely independent,” he said, launching into a breakdown of the festival’s evolution over the course of its 28 years.
You don’t need a lot of industry know-how to question the veracity of that statement. What does it mean when an icon of the film world makes a sweeping generalization that pushes aside the sizable accomplishments of countless festivals around the world? If Sundance is “purely independent,” does that imply that the likes of Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Venice and Telluride — not to mention Rotterdam, Locarno, Morelia, Sitges, IDFA and literally thousands of others — are somehow less committed to programming films without consideration of marketplace pressures? And, by the way, how can Redford ignore the constant buzz of Park City dealmaking that unquestionably helped put Sundance on the map?
In a lenient reading of Redford’s impromptu statement, it’s possible that such an outlandish assertion calls for a simple solution: We might need a moratorium on the word “independent,” at least when talking about Sundance.
The term has been played out many times over. Redford uses it like a reflex whenever discussing his mission, which is fast approaching its third decade. The word “independent” has become synonymous with “Sundance” only because nobody can figure out a better way to describe the lineup. But they really should. For starters, let’s try “Sundance.”
While the festival does a lot of good in terms of gaining exposure to many movies each year, it still faces the 800-pound gorilla of its industry presence. Some movies deserve the “independent” moniker more than others, but the festival exists outside the term. It creates opportunities for all kinds of movies and the recent Artists’ Services initiative that allows Sundance-accepted filmmakers to engineer self-distribution continues that goal (13 filmmakers have already taken advantage of it). Sundance has enough power to do what it wants, but only within the context of the films it supports. That makes it selectively independent, or independently minded, but pure independence amounts to a myth that the festival itself invented.
It’s true that every film in the current premieres section has yet to land U.S. distribution, but that alone never levels the playing field. Certain movies always have a leg up: The Julie Delpy comedy “2 Days In New York,” which co-stars Chris Rock, and the closing night selection “The Words,” starring Bradley Cooper, will almost certainly land some kind of a theatrical release and garner plenty of attention for obvious reasons. If there’s anything “pure” about these movies’ independence, it’s still a different formula from the independence on view in the festival’s New Frontiers section, or the many films with no-name directors and first-time actors that few festival-goers know about at this early stage.
Midsize features with up-and-coming talents, like the U.S. competition title “Nobody Walks” (scripted by Lena “Tiny Furniture” Dunham, directed by Sundance alum Ry Russo-Young and co-starring John Krasinski) automatically invite scrutiny for their “independent” status before anyone sees them. Largely thanks to the impact of Sundance at the start of each year, the American indie world has become a microcosm of Hollywood with better movies, a hierarchical system no less threatening than any mainstream commercial one.
However, few will dispute the claim that Sundance commands sizable weight as an advocate of its movies. Since the festival instigates conversations about movies before any other major festival on the calendar, it gets the attention of the power players responsible for defining the state of the industry, provides momentum for newcomers and keeps some veterans in the game by regularly providing them with an outlet. We can predict many of the anticipated Sundance films because the festival has maintained consistency on its own terms. Sundance isn’t “purely independent;” Sundance is Sundance.
In the next few days, the buzz machine is set to elevate a lot of the titles that have already generated plenty of anticipation, from the opening night documentary “The Queen of Versailles” to the supposedly bizarre “Simon Killer” from the team behind “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Potential breakouts like the capricious “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Black Rock” will pair off against broader conversations generated by topical documentaries like Eugene Jarecki’s war-on-drugs exposé “The House I Live In.” One thing is certain: Sundance guarantees that its movies have a shot in the limelight. What happens next is anybody’s guess.