Any Little Gems? Who Cares? Sundance Is a Hot Brand Now
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Before it was a brand, a media circus and an adjunct of Hollywood, the Sundance Film Festival was exhilarating, a blast. It was also small.
In 1993, the first year I attended the festival, it showed 71 new features culled from more than 350 submissions and attracted some 5,000 attendees. That year Robert Redford told Variety that the festival, then in its ninth year, was putting the brakes on growth because “when you start expanding on something, you run the risk of losing quality.” That was then, this is now: This year, the festival presented 125 features (from 3,287 submissions) for an estimated audience of 52,000, including some 1,000 accredited journalists from around the world and 900 registered film industry types.
Although this year’s edition, which ended yesterday, was widely perceived as a critical disappointment, good and great work is still shown at Sundance, even if these days it’s often the festival itself that makes bigger news than the films. This works to the festival’s advantage, since the Sundance brand helps obscure the reality that there simply isn’t enough quality American independent work, particularly of a saleable kind, to justify an event of this size. That probably helps explain why Sundance has dramatically increased the number of foreign-language selections and also why it gives pride of place to studio specialty division films, as it did this year with the premiere of Mike White and Paramount Vantage’s touching comedy, “Year of the Dog.”
As it happens, “Year of the Dog” was one of the best films I saw at this year’s festival. I thought about skipping the screening because the film is slated to open in a few months, but I like Mr. White’s screenplays — he wrote the 2002 Sundance favorite “The Good Girl” — and I wanted to see what he would do for his first stint as a director. That “Year of the Dog” is actually a studio film, not an independent, probably won’t matter to most moviegoers, even those who like their evening’s entertainment stamped with the indie label. The film is a bit offbeat, stars Molly Shannon and looks as if it was made on the cheap. It’s independent-like.
I was happy to see “Year of the Dog,” but I don’t know what it was doing at Sundance. Certainly the film didn’t need a boost from the festival, though the festival did seem to need it, just as it seems to need all those movie and television stars who now show up year after year, both onscreen and off. Stars bring the media, which helps bring the crowds and helps keep Sundance, and the boom town of Park City, Utah, on the map, no matter how disappointing the offerings. The ever-expanding indie-film apparatus — which encompasses the specialty divisions and independent companies, print and online reporters as well as other festival personnel — is now big enough that it doesn’t really matter if the festival has an off year. It doesn’t even matter to Sundance.
Founded in 1981, the Sundance Institute, which owns the festival, was dedicated to (as its Web site explains) “the development of artists of independent vision and to the exhibition of their new work.” The early 1980s were a growth period for American independent film, with titles like “Return of the Secaucus 7” and “My Dinner with Andre,” but there wasn’t much infrastructure or anything especially sexy about the scene. When Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee hit in the mid-1980s, bringing a young, punk-style D.I.Y. ethos with them, the independent landscape began to shift; it cracked wide open in 1989, the year Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” played first at Sundance, then Cannes.
The success of Mr. Soderbergh’s film raised the temperature and the noise — including at Sundance — though it would take a few years for the full effect to be felt. In 1993 Hollywood was in attendance at the festival, but Miramax Films wasn’t yet part of Disney; the stakes were lower than they are now, the deals were smaller. Independent distributors like Miramax and October Films were rooting around for work that would provide an alternative to Hollywood. Now Miramax and the other specialty divisions look for material that can add some diversity — a pinch of quirky here, a dash of edgy there — to the studio slate while their big studio brethren tap Sundance veterans like Christopher Nolan to guide some of the priciest projects on the lot.
In some respects Sundance’s stated mission to nurture independent filmmakers and give them a platform has been a roaring success, so much so that one studio executive and long-time festival attendee I know would like to see it shut down because, well, as he put it, “mission accomplished.” I’m not so sure. What I do know is that Sundance has become a very big machine in which it has become increasingly difficult for modestly scaled films without stars, without powerful brokers and backing and manufactured buzz to attract attention. I also know that most of the films that are picked up for distribution will quickly disappear when they are released. They will play in theaters for a few weeks, a couple months, then fade.
Not that it matters in the heat of the festival, when the temperature rises so high it’s a wonder that the ice covering the sidewalks doesn’t melt. The movies may not be terribly good, the art of the deal may matter more than the art of cinema to most attendees and worthy work may go unnoticed and unloved, but Sundance is hot. And it will continue being hot as long as it serves the interests of the film industry, as long as its corporate sponsors stay onboard and as long as the indie-film apparatus keeps ballooning.
Independence is a boom market. It’s a lifestyle choice, a state of mind, a backward baseball cap, a magazine feature, an Oscar hopeful, a mirage, a nostalgia trip. Each January it is a collective fantasy that even a doubter like me finds hard to resist because every so often a film cuts through the noise to hit you smack in the solar plexus.