Indie Cinema Forces: Sundance Film Festival

Every major city in the U.S. has a film festival, but there’s little doubt that the Sundance Festival is the premiere showcase for new American indies. Indeed, as far as industry heat and exciting discoveries are concerned, Sundance now ranks second only to Cannes on the film map. Celebrating new talent, Sundance has become a Mecca for aspiring independents.

Indie Guru: Robert Redford

Redford, credited with launching the indie movement, has split himself in two, pursuing a high-road strategy of starring in glossy studio movies (Up Close and Personal, The Horse Whisperer), while directing edgier, smaller studio movies (Ordinary People, Quiz Show). Redford is still a movie star, but he is better known as the guiding spirit of the Sundance Festival, Sundance Institute, Sundance Channel, and a nationwide chain of Sundance theaters.

Redford’s role in the indie world began in 1980, when he established the Sundance Film Institute. In 1985, he took over the ailing U.S.A. Film Festival and turned it into a first-rate exhibition platform for independents. From the beginning, Redford envisioned the festival as a complement to Sundance’s Screenwriting and Filmmaking Labs. “I just put one foot in front of the other,” he recently recalled. “We have this development thing, so let’s provide an exhibition. I simply wanted to get the movies seen.” Redford situated the festival in the picturesque ski resort of Park City, Utah, where “both the air and the values seem purer than in Hollywood.” As conceived by Redford, the festival’s function was to detect and display fresh talent.

For Redford, “the narrowing of the main part of the industry opens up the other part, which is diversity, which is what independent filmmaking is all about.” Multi-culturalism was meant to be Sundance’s raison d’etre, presenting works by women, African-Americans, and other ethnic minorities whose voices have been ignored in mainstream cinema. Redford hoped that “what will emerge in independent film is a counterreaction against what’s going on.”

Michelle Satter, director of Sundance’s Feature Film Program, believes that “more and more emerging film artists look to the Sundance Screenwriters and Filmmakers Labs to help them develop and refine their vision.” The body of work created by them has an increasing impact on contemporary American cinema. Many of the individuals groomed by Sundance (Allison Anders, Gregg Araki, Tarantino) have been acknowledged as the Next Wave.

Sundance’s Turning Point–1989

Sundance has grown enormously since the discovery of sex, lies and videotape in 1989 and the emergence of its director, Soderbergh, as the hottest filmmaker around. But growth has its costs. Soderbergh now grumbles about the “encroachment of commerce” which eclipses art. When he debuted his film, Sundance wasn’t “overrun by agents and wasn’t a deal market or a sales place.” There’s no doubt that sex, lies and videotape was a turning point, as Ira Deutschman points out, after which “everyone started taking the festival seriously.” “The shift came in 1990, when suddenly the festival became this feeding frenzy; inundated with agents executives and deal makers, it was no longer about art.”

With its phenomenal commercial success, sex, lies and videotape ushered in the Age of Sundance, when first-time filmmakers could become overnight celebrities. Indeed, each January, Park City becomes a magnet for distributors looking for pickups, executives checking out new talent, international media eager for new heroes, and agents seeking clients. William Morris alone sends two dozen agents, scouring the festival for the next breakthrough filmmaker. With the studios continuing to back risk-free entertainment, and with prices for established talent rising fast, Hollywood is hungry for cheap writers and directors.

The premiere of films like River’s Edge, sex, lies, and videotape, and House Party catapulted Sundance to the status of America’s most important festival. As sexy starlets used to go to Cannes to be discovered, non-Hollywood filmmakers arrive in Park City to catch the industry’s eye. In 1993, 225 features were submitted to the Sundance Dramatic Competition, representing a 30 percent increase in just two years. In 1997, 500 dramatic features were submitted, with an additional 200 films vying for a spot in the Documentary Competition.

This makes the programming extremely competitive and the final selections vulnerable to criticism. The emphasis is on the two competitions, the dramatic and the documentary, where 34 films are entered. Since most are not screened elsewhere, the chance to see a large number of documentaries is one of Sundance’s distinctive aspects. But the main event–what really draws the Hollywood establishment–is the dramatic competition.

Traditionally, Sundance represented a chance for no-name filmmakers and no-budget features to land distribution deals–the festival was the happy destination after a long journey. The perennial Sundance story has revolved around the hardship to raise the money, the years it took to make the film, the struggle to find a public. The hardships are still the same, but in the 1990s, the tradition is changing and many films at the festival arrive with distribution deals. Competition for hot indies is so fierce that many contracts are signed before Sundance. Said one agent: “If you haven’t seen the films before the festival, the ship has sailed by the time you get there.” Nonetheless, even films screened for distributors prior to the festival get special attention at Sundance, because there’s still need to test audiences’ reaction.

Sundance doesn’t simply bring exposure to pre-existing indies; it also brings added professionalism. Harvey Weinstein holds that young filmmakers are becoming more cognizant of the opportunities a showcase like Sundance provides: “It’s not like they can just go make a home-movie. The stakes are a little higher now that there’s a forum for it. This really is a world stage.” In the 1990s, Sundance has developed the critical mass of a major international event. As with Cannes or Toronto, the press attention to the popular hits and prize-winners means not only a major career boost and likely distribution, but free publicity for what might otherwise be strictly specialized fare.

While the growing prestige and hype from Hollywood have outweighed the charm and intimacy of the first years, the films themselves have changed too. If there was a stereotypical indie in the 1980s, it could be described as a “sensitive” coming-of-age story of a Midwestern farm girl. A low point of Sundance was Rob Nilsson’s 1988 top prize for his black-and-white video transfer, Heat and Sunlight, a rather weak film. Then, in 1989, sex, lies, and videotape, True Love, and Heathers exploded from the festival, and nothing has been the same. In the 1990s, the images are almost entirely urban and multi-racial, suffused with violence and dark humor.

Cycles and Trends

Discernible cycles and trends can be observed. In 1991, Sundance buzzed with new African-American directors–a black new wave–with Straight Out of Brooklyn, Hangin’ With the Homeboys, Daughters of the Dust. The “movement” that emerged in 1992 was the new queer cinema, with an unprecedented number of gay directors making radical films that had little concern for positive role models. Three gay-themed films grabbed attention in 1992: Swoon, The Living End, and The Hours and Times.

Each year, one comes away from the festival with a list of filmmakers who bear close watching. In 1992, in addition to the gay movies, there were Tarantino, whose stunning heist movie, Reservoir Dogs stirred debate about its violence and guaranteed him a Hollywood future; Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging, a fresh look at a mother in a New Mexico town trying to raise her unruly daughters; and Alexander Rockwell’s In the Soup.

In 1993, the most innovative movies, those that aroused strong emotions, were not in the dramatic competition, but the documentary series. Announcing the renaissance of first-rate nonfiction, they may not have caught agents’ attention, but for riveting drama and substantial issues they left the dramatic films in the dust. As Kenneth Turan observed, it was the year the understudy went out there and came back a star. Nonfiction films, always in the shadow of the more glamorous dramatic competition, found themselves centerstage. The 1993 documentary jury split the grand prize, not because they were divided but because they equally admired two films, Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family, about the culture of poverty in Palermo, and Silver Lake Life: The View from Within, a wrenchingly honest depiction of AIDS.
A large portion of the dramatic competition films in ’93 were made by first-time directors in their twenties. As such, they display the tentativeness and anomie that go along with that age, together with a peculiar fear of engaging the viewers emotionally. If there was a unifying theme, it concerned young people having to face adulthood–the anxieties of the younger generation were explored in these features by directors who were themselves twenty-something. Documentaries, on the other hand, were not shy about venturing into emotional territory. Viewers were reduced to tears in Silverlake Life: The View From Here, the video diary of two HIV-positive men. And when Earth and the American Dream received an unprecedented 5-minute standing ovation, it was one of the high points of director Bill Couturie’s life.

Over the years, what was once a laid-back, non-Hollywood festival has become a tension-filled auction block, a talent bazaar with long waiting lines for hot screenings and nervous filmmakers whose careers are on the line. Sundance may have lost the communal, alternative spirit that prevailed during the first years, but for the filmmakers and filmgoers reveling in ten days of nonstop pictures and movie talk, passion rather than profit remains the issue. The goal is still to celebrate the maverick visions of indie directors. Indeed, despite the fact that Sundance is no longer an intimate place, audiences still get to vote on their favorite films, and the preponderance of parkas, sweaters and cowboy boots still gives the place a semi-casual feel.

Although Sundance is now a polished operation, Redford refuses to let the festival get too smooth, to grind out grist for the studio mills. “It’s a very rough and dynamic experience, and it should stay that way.” Year after year, Redford restates the original goal: “This festival is about supporting the independent filmmaker. We don’t want to lost track of that sight. If you want to go to Hollywood, great, we support that. If not, we support that too. The N.Y. Times called us the last stop before Hollywood. But we’re not. Nor are we anti-Hollywood. We’re a bridge.”

The festival’s problems are the kinds that often nag at stars: How to survive the pressures of fame How to avoid being typecast “Success is a tricky mistress,” Redford once quipped. “It’s nice to have, but it’s a tricky thing to embrace. Sundance continues to face serious challenges: As it gets more popular, there are temptations and even pressures to expand. “When you start expanding on something,” Redford said, “you run the risk of losing quality, you begin to lose control.” Redford is adamantly against expansion just because it has caught on in such a big way.

“When the mainstream industry realized there was financial profit possible here, that started the ball rolling,” Redford acknowledged. “Hollywood comes here for a very clear reason–to discover talent they think will be profitable, or to buy films they think will be profitable.” Nonetheless, Redford is aware that excitement generated at Sundance doesn’t always translate into box-office success.

Year after year, Sundance films teach Hollywood a valuable lesson: There’s no need for a huge budget to make good movies. Often, the less filmmakers had to spend, the more they had to say. Most films at Sundance still suggest its low-budget grass roots. About half of the dramatic competition entries are made for less than $100,000, which is lunch money in Hollywood. Every year, some pictures generate some buzz, build excitement around their directors and develop reputations within the industry. In this respect, the festival has not changed: Novice filmmakers continue to covet the attention they receive at Sundance from Hollywood, foreign buyers and the national press, because it increases the likelihood of landing a deal, of getting their movie into the marketplace, and of insuring their continued productivity.