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Every winter, 8,000 feet above sea level in the Utah snow, the hopes and dreams of young moviemakers are put on display at the Sundance Film Festival—the haven for independent films where you can show up a kid and go home a star. In barely twenty years of existence, the festival—now overseen by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute—has assumed tremendous importance for today's film culture: during the annual ten-day event, tiny Park City is so overrun by agents, publicists, studio executives, and other Hollywood ...
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Every winter, 8,000 feet above sea level in the Utah snow, the hopes and dreams of young moviemakers are put on display at the Sundance Film Festival—the haven for independent films where you can show up a kid and go home a star. In barely twenty years of existence, the festival—now overseen by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute—has assumed tremendous importance for today's film culture: during the annual ten-day event, tiny Park City is so overrun by agents, publicists, studio executives, and other Hollywood types that in 1988 they blew out the town's cell-phone relay system.
Tom Bernard, who runs Sony Pictures Classics along with Marcy Bloom and Michael Barker: Back when I started New Line in 1977, there were these guys, Laurie Smith and Sterling van Wagenen—-he produced Trip to Bountiful and he was also Redford's brother-in-law. He and Laurie Smith started this festival called the U.S. Film Festival. It was in Salt Lake and the whole criterion for the festival was to find American independent movies.
And there was not a lot to find back then.
But it was the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival. They had the Utah Film Commission's backing because Laurie worked in the location department of the film commission—-they became involved because Laurie worked there. He said, "Hey, you guys, we can make this something that will focus on Utah." You know, there were very few small independent festivals back then. Now every city's got a festival; it's become a business.
But this one was different. They ran movies like Between Time and Timbuktu. Remember that Kurt Vonnegut PBS movie? New Line had a lot of those movies in its catalog back then; Bob Shaye was probably the front-runner in American independent film. He had everything from Pink Flamingos to Norman Mailer. But that's how it started.
In the beginning everyone got to stay for free. If you were one of the chosen few, they flew you out and—-you know those Pinnacle condos? They gave away like seven of those four-story condos and basically let everyone stay there. It became like an Animal House dorm.
So you had all these wild people who'd watch movies at night and ski all day, party with all the filmmakers allnight long, and it was a real spontaneous-combustion kind of place for filmmaking. Because back then the unions wouldn't let any of their technicians work on independent films. That was one of the reasons it was so hard—-either the stuff was tough to watch, it was just out of focus, or you had the consummate filmmaker who did everything.
What happened was, movies came out of this sort of mixture of people; that's how the Sundance labs came to be later. You had cameramen, lighting guys, editors who wanted to find something different than the same old Hollywood shit they'd been working on.
They'd show up out there, meet some guy who was an independent filmmaker who would say, "Oh, yeah, you wanna work on this?" "Yeah—-I can do it under an assumed name" or "I'll go to a right-to-work state and low-key it." All of a sudden you started getting these union-trained technicians working on independent films.
I remember on Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant's cinematographer just showed up there looking for work. That's what was great about the festival: there was a purity about it. It wasn't about awards; it was about people looking for what was new in filmmaking. And it became popular as more and more of the union technicians began working on the films, which became more viable in the Hollywood arena.
Part of what changed things was the so-called East Coast Contract, in which the unions made a deal in the early '80s allowing union technicians to work on low-budget films without being thrown out of the union. It changed the face of independent film—-which was about the time that Sundance got the festival.
Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics: There still weren't a lot of movies you wanted to pick up. It was a place you wanted to check out; there were new films going on. New directors came—-John Sayles had some stuff in—-but they struggled to fill a slate.
They had premieres where they'd bring some big name in, linking the studio and independent worlds. But a lot of people with the hottest films in the festival still didn't get distribution.
I think awards are where they started signaling filmmakers that they could win the lottery.
Jeff Lipsky, cofounder of October Films and head of acquisitions for Samuel Goldwyn Co.: There are things wrong with Sundance; there are things right with Sundance. When Sundance first got the festival, they called me to get Stranger Than Paradise and I turned them down. I don't remember who the artistic director was at the time—-whoever it was that was on the phone with me daily trying to convince me to enter it—-but he virtually said to me, "Look—-if it goes in, I can almost assure you it's going to win." I said, "Fine, OK, I'll enter it." It lost.
And I realized what had occurred, even then: I had fallen prey. Here you had a first feature by an unknown New York filmmaker named Jim Jarmusch, and you're asking him to put his faith in you—-as the distributor, as a friend, as a confidant—-and make him think, "He'll only do what's right for the film," and you enter it into this competitive environment of first-time filmmakers, and it loses. And I realized it's all wrong.
Here's a man, Robert Redford, who for decades has—-not rejected exactly, but eschewed the whole competitive notion of the Academy Awards, and now asks first- or second-time filmmakers, who may have stolen, scrimped, saved, borrowed their way into a nominal production budget, to go to Park City and get thrown into competition with each other, this barbaric, Roman-gladiator competition where one person wins—-now there are many more prizes—-but where one person wins and everybody else becomes a de facto loser.
YOU ARE A LOSER.
And in the press the next day they don't list the losers; they list the winners. So not only are you a loser, you're damaged goods. Suddenly distributors aren't interested and critics who haven't seen the film aren't interested and feature writers aren't interested and foreign-sales reps aren't interested and agents aren't interested and accountants aren't interested and attorneys aren't interested and financiers of your second film aren't interested.
Posted May 8, 2013