In 1993, Eugene Hernandez met Mark Rabinowitz on a Sundance shuttle bus. “I planned on staying for five days,” Hernandez recalls. “I ended up extending my trip.” The two would co-found Indiewire a few years later as a result of that chance encounter.
That was Hernandez’s first Sundance, a year after the festival shocked the world with the arrival of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” It followed other seminal films: “sex, lies and videotape” in 1989, “Poison” and “Paris is Burning” in 1991. “So I came out here on a whim,” Hernandez said in Park City during this year’s festival. “Seeing ‘Reservoir Dogs’ at a matinee screening in 1992 [in Los Angeles], I thought, ‘Wow, there’s something going on at Sundance.’ Quentin Tarantino came from there, Jennie Livingston came from there, Todd Haynes came from there, Steven Soderbergh came from there, these are all filmmakers among my filmmakers of the moment. There’s something going on there. So a friend and I just scraped together some money, came here on a whim, stayed at the Chateau Après dorm.”
This year was my own first time taking in the festival, covering movies and staying at the thrifty Chateau Après. Not long into the interview, Jennie Livingston, there to present a 25 year anniversary screening of her restored, groundbreaking documentary “Paris is Burning,” dropped by to say hello; before that, it was Josh Mond, who would win the NEXT prize for “James White” before the festival was done. It spoke immediately to the environment Hernandez was describing, the friendly, engaging, and inspiring convergence of talent and film lovers. “The year that I came here, I met Bryan Singer, and Robert Rodriguez. It was the year of the 20-somethings, it was the perfect moment to be walking into an experience wanting to find inspiration and Sundance gave it to me immediately.”
The means of communicating all the extraordinary happenings at Sundance to the outside world was strikingly more limited back then. Hernandez relayed a story told to him by Todd McCarthy, whose article in Daily Variety the Monday after Sundance ended was widely considered the definite dispatch on the Sundance festival back then. “He would write that article and file by fax machine after the awards on Saturday night,” Hernandez says. “He would virtually have to break into the Sundance office and borrow the fax machine to file the stories. Every year the article got published, but it never got easy to get a strong enough connection if a storm would knock out power. There was no other way to communicate.”
“I and my colleagues felt very strongly that independent film deserved more than a wrap-up article out of Sundance,” Hernandez continues. “The films that I saw here in ’93 and the people that I met here that I would only get to see when I came back here, because we had no consistent means of communication or interaction, deserved more. Variety would do a wrap-up article, maybe a couple of other pieces if something is worth writing about. The Times did a wrap-up piece at the end and Filmmaker Magazine would write its coverage of the festival two months later. That’s not just inefficient, but that’s a disservice to the filmmakers who were coming out of this festival, and there was a lot more going on here than one or two print articles. So the concept for Indiewire, really, was documenting. We wanted to be a hybrid of Daily Variety and Filmmaker for independent filmmakers. And it couldn’t be every month; we needed the mindset of Daily Variety, but electronic and covering exclusively independent film. Not just the films that win the awards. This world of film deserved and needed a lot more attention.”
Indiewire — or, as it was then written, indieWIRE — was launched as a newsletter in the summer of 1996, sent out of Hernandez’s own AOL account to 200 people. “The concept that we had for Indiewire in ’96 was to be this kind of central meeting point information source for American independent filmmaking. The problem we had was, and I’m not exaggerating, that very few people were online consistently and success of our idea depended upon them getting online and having email. It seems far-fetched and crazy to imagine it now. If we were gonna succeed, people had to embrace the internet. People were resistant because the film industry likes to depend on proven approaches and models, and that meant phone calls and faxes.” Naturally, then, lifting the vision of Indiewire off the ground was initially a struggle. “We had to evangelize not only what we were trying to do but the broader idea of technology and email and communication.”
Since then, Indiewire has chronicled the growth of American independent cinema, with “Boyhood” poised to become the first Sundance premiere to win a Best Picture Oscar. It’s exciting to me that not only is Richard Linklater there, someone who has been in the American independent film conversation for 20-plus years,” Hernandez says, “but that Damien Chazelle with ‘Whiplash,’ who was also embraced by this festival, in 2014 is there as a kind of counterpoint. The first year I was here in ’93, Wes Anderson” — also nominated this years for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — “was here with a short film called ‘Bottle Rocket.’ That is the modern history of American independent film being celebrated in the Academy Awards this year in a way that speaks loudly about the power of this festival. It’s a striking moment. You look at Ava DuVernay, another person whose having a dramatic impact on this year’s Academy Awards who comes from the Sundance Film Festival. A week ago today I ran into her right over there,” he says, pointing to the Park City Marriott lobby, “and she was here for the first weekend. And she continues to come back to this place because of its importance to her history and her career.”
Having witnessed this massive growth in interest for independent cinema, and seeing the growth of his brainchild of Indiewire throughout the two decades he had been going to the festival fills him with great pride, even if he is no longer with the company he founded. “The filmmakers that I meet who are your age who were born in the early 90s view the media landscape around independent film very differently. And the fact that Indiewire is at the center of the media landscape of filmmakers of your generation is inspiring and exciting to me because it speaks to what our original goals were. Now it’s just a matter of remaining open.”
Hernandez left Indiewire in 2010 for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where as Deputy Director he manages day-to-day operations and develops long-term strategy. But the experience of discovering new filmmakers at Sundance remains much the same. “It starts with just sitting down in the theater and experiencing the film” he says. “Don’t believe the hype. Don’t necessarily expect that the films that everyone is telling you are going to be the big films of the festival will be the big films of the festival. The ability of this festival to raise awareness for films, filmmakers, an issue or a topic, literally overnight, and catapult it into the national conversation, like no other film festival can in this country, is really significant. It’s huge, and that places a tremendous burden on the journalists. You have to be in the room for that, and process it and share it.”
As a member of the U.S. Documentary Jury, which gave its top prize to Crystal Moselle’s “The Wolfpack,” Hernandez spent his 21st Sundance with a special mandate. “This is the first year that I’m not a journalist,” he says. “What’s unique about that as it relates to my level of alertness is that I’ve been very focused on just one aspect of the festival… I feel more, if not necessarily rested, because it’s hard to be rested a week into a festival, one so immersive as this one, I feel more focused. I have more clarity about this year’s program in one specific area.”
It’s been a long time coming since winging a trip in 1993, sleeping in the bunk beds at the Chateau Après in the mountains of Park City, Utah. “This place is very important to me, because coming back here takes me back, it always grounds me in that experience of where am I. I owe my career, I owe my interest in what I do to two place: the Sundance Film Festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. And I’m now able to travel to the Sundance Film Festival working at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. These are the two places that introduced me, that nurtured my interest in film.”
This article was produced as part of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.