Thirteen Ways of Looking at Sundance

Sundance is growing. More submissions than ever–8,000 for 2008. More screenings. More countries of origin represented in both the feature and documentary competitions. More arms of the Sundance empire–institutes, labs, the Sundance Channel–at work. More categories to sift through than a sane film-goer can practically comprehend, let alone stand in line for. Then there’s the question of influence.

Filmmakers and film buyers collectively agree that Sundance remains a festival of discovery. Getting in means something. An acceptance is, to some degree, bankable. And a rejection leaves some filmmakers scrambling in a hazy purgatory of plans B through Z. However necessary Sundance may be for independent filmmakers to make a name for either themselves or their films, does the festival in any meaningful way still serve as a genuine barometer of independent film?

This isn’t a new question. In fact last year Richard Corliss wrote that Sundance movies have become cautious and predictable, devolving into a genre that cranks out non-Hollywood movies for smart people. “It’s just a different sort of same,” he summed, though one can assume he largely meant feature films. He believes Sundance had a heyday, and his list of evidence includes the launch of now Hollywood-elite white male directors like Joel and Ethan Coen, Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino, and Bryan Singer.

So what does the evolution of Sundance mean for people who care about independent film? To find out, The Independent spoke to an array of people to get a sense of how they view Sundance in relation to other festivals, to their careers, to their day-to-day lives. To illustrate the breadth of thoughts and experiences, we’ve selected 13 points of view, not in any qualitative order, and invite you to join the conversation by commenting below.

The First-timers

1. Sundance accepts unfinished work in November or December, which can mean sleepless nights during the already overbooked holidays and New Year, so explains RJ Maccani, associate producer of Slingshot Hip Hop, which competes in the 2008 documentary competition. “Since we’ve gotten into Sundance, certain tasks have attained a new urgency. I worked 14 hours straight on Saturday correcting subtitles, for example. That’s tough, sure, but [director and producer] Jackie and Waleed have been putting in days like that almost straight for over a month now.”

Not having film as your sun and moon and stars can be a benefit, says Maccani, “I work as a nanny, organize with a radical childcare collective here in NYC, and blog about the Zapatistas and related anti-capitalist movements in Mexico, the USA and around the world. In other words, I have no film career. Surprisingly, this fact has probably made me an asset to Slingshot Hip Hop. With no clamoring to advance my own career, I am able to focus on supporting the director and doing whatever I can to make this film as successful as it deserves to be.”

2. Michelle Cove has a message for single women in their 30s—you’re not alone. She’s written about single life for national magazines, and even sat on Oprah’s couch. But to really connect with audiences, she wanted them to see the faces of single women firsthand and decided to make a documentary. A trailer of her project, Seeking Happily Ever After was accepted into the Producers’ Guild of America’s 2008 screening at Sundance: “Given that this was my first film, having my trailer shown at Sundance was a total pipe dream. I couldn’t even fill out a grant application with Sundance because I had no reel to show.” Producer Kerry David (My Date with Drew) helped Cove make the entrée. Cove couldn’t be happier. “[Screening at Sundance] means that anything is possible. One year ago, I did not have a stitch of experience or a single connection to anyone in film. Now one year later, I’m booking my flight to Sundance where my trailer will screen. I’m actually welling up just saying this. It’s unbelievable.”

3. But Sundance isn’t a silver bullet, even for those who want a career in film. Perhaps that’s more the case for filmmakers who stray from the narrative feature fold, like Ed Yonaitis, a recent graduate of The Savannah College of Art and Design. His fictional short, The Execution of Solomon Harris, was selected for Sundance 2008: “Career-wise, nothing much has happened for me since our Sundance acceptance, aside from a few excited congratulations from my office co-workers.” Showing his naiveté, or prescient wisdom, Yonaitis and co-director Wyatt Garfield aren’t thinking of Sundance in terms of their careers. They’re thinking about how to use it to get the next film made.

Yonaitis and Garfield also understand that a Sundance acceptance can be a financial liability. Struggling first-timers are bound to attend the festival, to douse potential supporters with press kits, and otherwise spend money they may not have. Yonaits, Garfield, and six additional Execution crewmembers will be in Park City for their premiere. Yonaitis explains, “One of the great things about this trip is that our school is paying for our housing during our stay. This came as fantastic news for us, as there would have been no way for us to attend otherwise. Plus, they printed a LOT of promotional postcards, posters and DVDs for us to distribute while we’re here, which we plan to take full advantage of.”

The Buyers

4. Though Jan Rofekamp admires Sundance’s inclusion of more international cinema despite the domestic risk (Americans won’t watch subtitles, he says), he isn’t sentimental about it. As the president & CEO of Films Transit, his business is the international documentary market, about 80 percent of which is broadcast. He’s sending a representative to Sundance armed with the cold reality that American documentary subjects have limited shelf-life outside of US borders: “After 9/11 when Bush said to the Europeans, ‘We don’t really care of what you think about us,’ that has caused slow drop of interest in American subjects. One victim of this is the American independent filmmaker. I am always surprised to see another film about Katrina, another film about a sick brother . . .” Rofekamp acknowledges Films Transit has buying limitations going in to Sundance: “Of the 18-20 films, 9 or 10 we eliminate almost immediately because of subject.”

5. In addition to spotting new talent or promoting signed titles at Sundance, Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies (WMM), keeps tabs on how many women directors receive a golden invite. Preliminary findings in a WMM study suggest that Sundance has generally been more open to women filmmakers with numbers slightly higher, if not significantly higher than other major festivals. Zimmerman qualifies, “However since 2000, the average percentage of single women directors in [Sundance’s] world and US documentary competition is 25 percent. If you factor in half of films made by men and women it is more like 30 percent.”

Zimmerman sees Sundance, and its inevitable culling of films, as a necessity for independent filmmakers. “We all give Sundance its importance and we all have to acknowledge our own responsibility in this area. In an ideal world, we would want that which is abundant, and we wouldn’t that which is scarce, but scarcity means importance in many ways and that’s what film festivals run on.”

The Veterans

6. Steve Bognar is an Emmy-winning director and producer. He’s not attending Sundance this year but has several times in the past to premiere his documentaries. Young filmmakers sought his advice about how to respond to their 2008 acceptance: “I’ve been to Sundance five times. The opportunity to screen at this high profile event could add a huge amount to your career. Other film venues either go or read the catalog, it can be a big boost in terms of visibility. Once in, you owe it to your film to work hard that week. You’re not there to see movies.”

7. Recognizable in his home country as a television star, Darrell Dennis returns to Sundance in 2008 to workshop a screenplay, Tales of an Urban Indian, at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. In 2003 he screened a short at Sundance, Moccasin Flats, which later became a Canadian television series: “Outside of Quebec, there is no real star system in Canada unless they’ve made it in the States first. We really don’t have a film industry that appreciates the homegrown film. The fact that I was accepted to Sundance gives [my film] a lot of credibility. Since then people have been tracking down my email; I’ve been in the news in Canada from coast to coast. I keep getting phone calls from different provinces, “Hey, I saw you on the news.” They hadn’t interviewed me — they were using stock footage. Very bizarre. It’s not even a film yet.”

8. For the seventh year, filmmaker Therese Shechter will serve as an official Sundance volunteer. Every year she sends festival dispatches to friends and family, some of which have been picked up by The Chicago Tribune. In 2001 she wrote, “one distribution exec remarked last night that this was the worst festival to find anything you could ever hope to show in front of a mainstream audience and that a dog could pick better films.” Wonder what the exec would say this year? Shechter is the on-the-ground rep for The Independent in 2008. Before she left she told us, “There’s the Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, gifts, swag, parties festival . . . then there’s a whole other Sundance, which is a really great independent film festival full of filmmakers who have been working on their film for nine years and can’t believe they’re there. We are all doing different festivals. For the locals, it’s the best time to ski because the slopes are empty.”

The Locals

9. Like any major film festival, Sundance generates serious bucks for its host community. But gridlock, real fur coats, or faux celebs may be enough to drive any local mad. Destry Pollard has opted instead to drive the festival, literally, for the last 18 years. Now the transit operations team leader for the city of Park City, Pollard was a bus driver for 10 years, and a transit supervisor for 5 or 6 before that. He remains good-natured about the festival but knows as well as anyone – hosting some 60,000 visitors over 11 plus days is work.

“We contribute an additional 92 [busing] hours per day during the festival. A lot of our part-time people will pick up extra days and some full-time people will go from working five to six days. A handful of drivers will take a week off another job and drive during the festival, that’s how we get by staffing.” But the drivers aren’t immune to celebrity dishing. Pollard recalls a chance encounter: “I remember picking up Bryan Singer (“Usual Suspects”) at the Racquet Club [in 2005]. He kept saying, “Come see our film – it’s really good!” I thought, yeah, yeah just another Sundance wannabe. And he was begging me to let him drive the bus. Of course I was telling him, “Absolutely not,” but had I known he was going to become a big-time movie director . . . You never know who you’re going to run into or who you’re going to meet.”

10. Not all businesses benefit from the festival’s presence. “Every year during Sundance business gets slower and slower,” says Paul Nichols, district manager of Blockbuster’s two Park City stores. He doesn’t have exact figures but business in general is slower than ever, he explains. He’s been with Blockbuster for 12 years. The future’s uncertain for anyone in the DVD rental market and even Blockbuster has taken a few cues from Sundance. “This Blockbuster was the first to have a Sundance section and Blockbuster corporate took that idea to other stores, which have Sundance Channel recommends,” says Nichols.

The Alternatives

11. Sometimes uprisings respond to an institution in power, sometimes they ride the coattails, sometimes they redefine how it all should be. Sundance’s success has inspired several alternative versions the independent film festival. Slamdance, for example, does not reference Sundance in its online “about us,” but calls itself a showcase for “truly independent works.” Dean Georgopoulos founded ROADance to tap into Sundance’s captive audience (and to screen a huge amount of video he acquired through a business deal). ROADance projects films on a truck that Georgopoulos drives up and down Park City’s Main Street.

His reception hasn’t always been above freezing: “The bottom line is that I show movies for free and Sundance doesn’t like that. My third year I got shut down, a cop gave me a ticket, then they wrote a bunch of laws into the city code to make what I do illegal. So in 2005 I got a permit to operate in a drugstore parking lot. I felt like a man without a country.”

The Cultural Theorist

12. Kyle Minor posed critical questions about Sundance’s relationship with independent film for The Independent in 2004. He also pondered the importance of celebrity, and described a universal jockeying for position that happens at even the smallest festivals for McSweeney’s: “No one knows their place, where they stand in relation to other people. There is no television box to look into, no soft lighting and makeup to ascribe beauty to the elect, no helpful voice-over to explain the significance of what is happening. Some people are excessively polite, in case they are in the presence of someone important, and some people are excessively rude in order to demonstrate their own importance.”

The Independents

13. You. Are you at Sundance with your film? Have you been before? What do you think? Continue the conversation by posting a comment.

4 Responses to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Sundance”

  1. j patrick mcgrail

    As a professor of media and film festival judge, I like what comes out of Sundance, but I haven’t gone yet. Calling the festival “independent” has become a bit of a stretch. When independent films are defined as being those made for under $12 million, I keep thinking that something’s out of whack. I really respect people who capitalize on what money can’t buy – good acting, terrific directing and editing, and of course, a compelling story. At the Iris Film Festival here in Pennsylvania, I have judged movies that cost between $30k and $90k (yes, that’s thousand, not million) and still been impressed. And those films were still a financial hardship for their creators to make. Would their movies have been better if they’d had more money? Well, most of them thought so, although I keep thinking that the inventiveness that they had to demonstrate to keep things to a skeletal budget may have given the film an energy and a non-standardness it might have otherwise not had.

  2. davidltamarin

    In this article, the author asks, “Does the festival in any meaningful way still serve as a genuine barometer of independent film?” I think this is the crucial issue raised by the article.

    Sundance has always been the representative of independent cinema. But some believe it has lost its original intent, that it no longer best represents true independent film, that it has been overrun by the paparazzi and the press and P.R. people and marketing people. These films, therefore, have already been picked up by a distributor and thus don’t need the promotion as much as a lesser known film maker.

    One of the leading critics of the Sundance Film Festival is Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Studios. He runs an alternative to Sundance called the TromaDance Film Festival, put together by the folks at Troma films, which has made and released such classics as Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Surf Nazis Must Die and more. Lloyd Kaufman, the man behind Troma, has attempted to create a truly democratic film festival.

    In his writings, and the writings of Jonathan Lees, program director of TromaDance, Sundance is no longer a true showcase for independent films, and that TromaDance is the true independent festival. They do not charge film makers to show their films. They do not charge the audience to see the films. Everyone is treated as an equal.

    The problem with Sundance, according to them, is that it has become a distributor’s showcase, for films that already have a distributor, and sometimes the films have a well known actor attached to the project. Sundance has been taken over by publicists, and an aggressive promotion of films involving giving away posters, making press releases, etc. In other words, it is about promoting films that already have some money, and a distributor and P.R. team who will use Sundance for the purposes of promotion and commercialization, as opposed to giving art directly to the people, the goal of TromaDance.

    Sundance does give us great films every year. But there seems to be two levels of ‘independent film’. There are the kind shown at Sundance that often have budgets close to a million dollars, sometimes more. The other level of independent film is the type I have been involved in. Films with budgets under $30,000. They may be great films, but they have a better chance of being screened at TromaDance then Sundance.

    Many people may not know, but there are literally hundreds of film festivals all over the world. I live in Boston, and in just my city there is both the Boston Underground Film Festival, and Rock’N’Shock, an annual event featuring music and screenings. I have traveled down to Rhode Island to attend some films at the Providence Film Fest.
    My own film, Countess Bathoria’s Graveyard Picture Show (which I co-wrote), debuted at the Fantasia Film Festival, a prominent Canadian horror-oriented festival.

    Sundance does show some great films, and is responsible for turning films like Reservoir Dogs into hits. But there are hundreds of other festivals, probably one in your own city.

    To answer the question raised by the author, I do not believe that Sundance is a true barometer of independent film. Other film festivals must be taken into consideration.

    David L Tamarin

  3. Therese_Shechter

    There are many films at Sundance that cost well under a million dollars – and occasionally under 100K. Many of the documentaries and some of the dramatic features fit this budget and they are the bulk of the films I see and enjoy at the festival. There is still a large and truly ‘indie’ component at Sundance, but these smaller films often get buried under the publicity for the ‘bigger’ films containing known actors.

  4. Marc23

    Here’s another way of looking at Sundance … or, if I know myself, by the end of this comment, it will be several other ways. For starters, let me say, I look at Sundance from afar; as I’ve been doing for seventeen years. I first heard of Sundance shortly after the 91 festival, at which Poison (dir. Todd Haynes) screened. Details magazine did an article about Sundance and profiled a bunch of filmmakers; I was in my senior year in high school, and said, wow, this is where I want to be. 17 years later, every single January, I’ve said the same thing. Finally, this year, I had a film worthy of the submission fee; it didn’t get in, but it was a good, solid short that screened at several fests and it doesn’t hurt to try. By this August/September, my next short will be done—on film this time, much bigger budget, etc.—and we’ll see if it’s the right time for me and Sundance.

    But the point here is, how do I look at it? Here’s what I think would be great: the cachet of getting in to Sundance (with a short; I’ll make a feature someday, but right now I’m still a short filmmaker, and I’m thinking in the present, so that’s where we’ll keep this.) Seeing movies, parties, and seeing more movies would be great, but as Steve Bognar says, it’s a place to work. The networking opportunities would be great, as I would spend all of my time trying to meet people and making contacts and connections to find financing for a feature script and to find an agent to get me director-for-hire work. Invitations to other festivals would surely follow, where further networking could take place.

    And that would be my prime goal at Sundance; to get a business card, phone number, or e-mail from anyone and everyone who is in the film industry, and to follow up with him or her, promptly, politely, and with a copy of my film and a brief overview of what my career plan is and a request for support, advice, financing, meetings, whatever.

    As a short filmmaker, if I get in to Sundance with my next short, I will be thrilled beyond all belief. I will definitely go, and I will work my tail off to get my film seen, but more importantly, to meet producers, financiers, other directors, actors, writers—people who have the same or similar dreams as me and with whom I’d like to be in business.

    And I can’t let entrance or rejection to Sundance determine whether or not I am going to forge ahead with my career. I don’t know that agents, producers, or financiers are catching all of the 80 or so shorts that Sundance programs; from what I’ve heard, the thing to do is to target a number of people prior to the festival and then try to use the festival as a time to meet up with them. Sounds like a good plan, but it would seem equally effective to target those same people, go to LA for a week, sleep on a friend’s couch, and take as many meeting as you can get and not try to coordinate such a thing in the snow and frenzy of a festival.

    So to sum it all up, here’s my way of looking at Sundance: unparalleled, incredible opportunity to take a huge step up with the career by meeting like minded people. Not getting in? Buy a copy of the Hollywood Creative Directory, a subscription to iMDB Pro, and start cold-calling, e-mailing, and networking from home. Getting in would be better, but for a short, it doesn’t feel like the be-all end-all; it just seems like a huge leg up. I’d love to hear what other folks think. Best of luck to all for next year!


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