by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
If you want to see interesting independent films and the movie stars in them, the Sundance film festival, held in the picturesque ski town of Park City, Utah, is the place to go. The annual festival attracts movie stars, independent filmmakers, studio executives, journalists, and people who love movies. Sundance has gained a reputation as the premier American film festival for independent feature films and documentaries. Although the festival itself has an air of exclusivity, to me and most people who care about film, the independent films shown represent film at its best: a medium that transcends boundaries and moves people to a greater understanding of humanity, even if the world they’re watching is completely foreign to them.
Between screenings, I quickly learned that I had arrived rather naïve about the whole experience. I had assumed everyone came to see the films, but I quickly came to realize that the sole reason some people trek through Park City’s snowy streets is the hope of securing a lucrative distribution deal. Distribution is an industry in and of itself. The lore of the independent film festival, involving a brilliant but broke filmmaker creating a masterpiece on a shoestring budget and then selling the distribution rights to the a major Hollywood studio for an exorbitant sum of money, which I bought into, turns out to be lore. To survive, film is at least as much about business as art.Sundance selects two hundred feature, documentary, and short films from over eight thousand submissions. The selected films are then divided into either competition categories (Documentary Competition, Dramatic Competition, etc) or ambiguously named programs like New Frontiers and Spectrum. The films in competition categories vie for the festival awards. For filmmakers, being accepted to Sundance is an accomplishment that means thousands of people at the festival will see your film, and you might win an award.
But the equally real competition at Sundance is for distribution deals. True success at Sundance is a multi-million dollar international distribution deal; without such a deal, Sundance might be the only place your film is ever screened. While a distribution deal based on commercial appeal doesn’t mean that a film is good, failing to secure a distribution deal usually guarantees post-festival obscurity.
The festival’s official theme, “Focus on Film” was printed on liberally distributed pins and worn by nearly everyone. Nonetheless, a healthy percentage of people (pin-wearing and otherwise) only went to parties. They happily watched for celebrities without bothering to actually see a movie. The first time I heard someone say that they hadn’t seen any films was at the bus stop on day seven of the festival. A husky fellow who looked like he knew how to have fun was chatting with the festival volunteer working the bus stop (the volunteers were all film buffs who loved to give recommendations). She asked him the obvious question, “Which films have you liked?” and he responded, “I haven’t seen any films – too busy with parties.” I was open-mouthed.
Throughout the festival, I was stunned to see gangs of adoring fans hoping to have their picture taken with Paris Hilton, of all people. I was dismayed to realize that some people would rather see their favorite movie star walking down the street than on the big screen. Even the likes of Tom Hanks and Robert DeNiro, who have done such powerful work on screen in Philadelphia, Forest Gump, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, know that movies cannot be financially successful without fans, so they, too, come to Sundance and gamely sign autographs and pose for pictures.
The result is elaborate promotional campaigns that include chic corporate-sponsored parties where the guest list is limited, the movie stars are plentiful, and SWAG (Stuff We All Get) is free flowing.
No matter how eminent, producers, directors, and movie stars must all participate. Sometimes this means sitting for question and answer sessions post-screening; when actors and directors take the stage to answer questions, if the film is thought-provoking, it can be very interesting and insightful.
This was the case after the screening of the new film adaptation of the play A Raisin in the Sun. Though not intended to open in movie theatres, it will be broadcast on ABC on February 25th. The film’s stars Sean “Diddy” Combs, Phylicia Rashad, and Broadway star Audra McDonald all thoughtfully discussed the film’s message of overcoming racial discrimination and the challenges marginalized people still face while attempting to better their lives. The play, which was written by Lorraine Hansberry in the 1950s, was the first Broadway production ever to be written by an African-American woman. During the Q&A the stars all discussed the importance of the film’s themes of equality, family, and forgiveness – and it didn’t hurt that all of their performances were mesmerizing.This year the market at Sundance was as chilly as the weather: few movies sold early in the festival and studios were unwilling to pay high prices for films that might not deliver big returns on big investments. Distributors were playing it safe: they only paid big money for fun films that practically promised a profit. Hamlet 2, which sold to Focus Films for $10 million, is that kind of film: funny, enjoyable, with mass commercial appeal. The comedy stars British actor Steve Coogan as an unsuccessful actor turned inept high school drama teacher who tries to save his job by writing and staging a production Hamlet 2 (a misguided sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet) – what follows is non-stop hilarity. Hamlet 2 sold for so much not because it was the best movie at the festival, but because buying it for major distribution was a smart business move.
One of the most original and accomplished films I saw at the festival was Lance Hammer’s Ballast, which won the Directing Award as well as the Excellence in Cinematography Award for dramatic film. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the film will ever reach a wider audience – it’s too “art” and not enough “business.” Hammer allows the characters (all played by unknown actors) to simply feel and act. In long uncut sequences, the characters say nothing. But the audience subtly comes to understand the characters’ quiet desperation in the face of suicide, poverty, and juvenile drug use – painful, serious topics, not quirky or charming at all.
Not even serious humanitarian-themed documentaries screened at Sundance could escape the celebrity environment. At the screening of the inspiring and gritty documentary Made in America, the film’s serious subject matter – the violent history of South Central Los Angeles - was lost on a crowd more interested in spotting someone famous. The film was embarked upon in an effort to find an explanation for and a solution to the lethal gang violence that has left generations of children mourning their fathers and mothers mourning their sons. While I was reeling from the film’s gripping footage and powerful call for change, the topic of conversations I most overheard while shivering on the bus was the attendance of Jessica Alba, whose fiancé, Cash Warren, helped produce the film. All I could think was, “Were you watching the same film I was?”
As the festival wound down, the streets of Park City finally no longer resembled a maze filled with unacceptable amounts of litter. I’m sure the residents of Park City were happy to reclaim their town, because it’s a beautiful hamlet surrounded by picturesque mountains covered in the powdery snow that Utah is known for. Without crowds, I could easily get a cup of coffee at 7:30 a.m. (a necessity to stay awake during an 8:30 a.m. screening). I will wait in line for coffee.While my credentials got me in to see over 25 films for free, I did not get the thousands of dollars worth of free stuff that “everyone” at Sundance receives. Swag, something inconceivable to almost everyone living in the real world, is reserved for the true celebrity. Persuasion and influence being the point of swag, you have to be important enough to persuade and influence the making of films. While the celebrities and the parties aren’t furthering the artistic integrity that made this festival famous, I had to realize that Sundance couldn’t exist without the corporate sponsors, celebrities mixing with fans, and the distribution deals.
Fortunately I didn’t come to Sundance for the freebies. I came for the chance to see exciting films before they hit theatres.
Filmmaking is a business. Still, I found it difficult to accept that while watching a remarkable film, other people were just thinking about how much money it could make. I was so intrigued by many films’ characters and plots that financing never crossed my mind – except during the singular documentary, I.O.U.S.A., which finally made economics remarkably interesting and compelling, even to me.
I loved being at the festival and seeing as many films as is humanly possible. But many thought-provoking films, particularly the diverse selection of documentaries, were overshadowed by the focus on celebrity and money. Films, especially documentaries, can change the way that people think about the world; celebrities sporting swag can’t have the same effect. I would be lying if I said that seeing famous people on the street wasn’t at least a little thrilling, but, for me, Sundance was about the films and the serious discussions they inspired.
Most of us cannot travel the world fighting against injustice, but films allow us, at least for a moment, to intimately experience a world we may never see in person. Filmmaking may be a business, but the heart of that business is the art and spirit of the filmmaker. Few artistic mediums can transcend culture, language, and geography to move people to action. While several of the films I saw and loved couldn’t secure widespread distribution and so may never make it to the big screen, I look forward to sharing them with WIP readers in future reviews.
Love, hate, despair, joy, the impact of violence and grinding poverty and triumph over both are all part of the human experience. This is the raw material of the best films, and why we love them.
- All photos by Ryan Young
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.