In the midst of the self-congratulatory hoopla of Awards Season — complete with excessive advertising campaigns and lavish red carpet events — I am embarrassed to say one of the biggest film events of the year seemed to sneak up on me. The Sundance Film Festival, which starts today, has long been considered an important benchmark in the world of independent film, but it’s on unsteady ground due to the bleak financial climate.
Sundance saw its commercial emergence in 1989 when a fledging Miramax Films bought Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” The picture’s subsequent commercial success re-defined Sundance as a place where small movies could go in hopes of attracting major box office returns.
In recent years, quirky yet endearing movies like “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Garden State” found their starts at the festival. In 2006, Fox Searchlight Pictures paid a record $10.5 million for “Little Miss Sunshine,” a movie that went on to remarkable commercial and critical reception. Since then, Hollywood has all but uprooted itself these last weeks of January and transplanted itself in Utah for Sundance.
As long as I’ve been interested in film, I’ve taken Sundance to be the beacon of artistic individuality and cultural importance. The notion of finding refuge from the cold in a quaint western movie house like the famous Egyptian Theater and watching new films would be my ideal day. As I come to learn about the workings of the festival, though, it seems to hinge less on truly independent, unique cinematic voices and more on the same commercialism and materialism that drives Hollywood.
While hundreds of films play at Sundance, very few actually make it to a theater near you. What these films and filmmakers rely on for circulation is distributors making purchases. In years past, many independent distributors and studio specialty labels — divisions of the larger studios devoted to smaller movies and niche markets — hit the Sundance slopes in search of their underdog box office gem. The number of potential buyers, however, has slimmed drastically.
In the past year, independent outfit THINKFilm took a step back due to financial instability; Warner Bros. shut down its Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse sectors and drastically scaled back New Line Cinema; Paramount Pictures, too, reduced its Paramount Vantage division, a distributor that had been notably successful despite the increasingly crowded marketplace for small films; and, on Jan. 3, Universal Studios announced the sale of Rogue Pictures, its horror/comedy specialty label.
The ailing economy, combined with the waning presence of distributors willing to gamble on commercially limited pictures, means mass audiences may not get to see some of the best, if less commercial, films showcased at Sundance.
Two of the most highly touted films at the 2008 Festival (“Ballast,” by director Lance Hammer and “Sugar,” from the duo that made the acclaimed “Half Nelson”) received little-to-no exposure in theaters.
I don’t mean to be a spoilsport, nor do I mean to be naïve. Of course the movie industry relies on the principles of business just like any other field. Without money, movies simply cannot be made and distributed. And with the limited availability of capital to buy films as well as an unprecedented apprehension about picking a dud, Sundance could see its slowest year in some time. Picture a smaller than usual collection of gun-shy executives huddled together in the cold.
At this year’s festival, a number of films look particularly interesting. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” an adaptation from David Foster Wallace, is written and directed by John Krasinski (Jim, from “The Office”), who also stars in it. In addition, there’s “Big Fan,” directed by Robert Siegel, the screenwriter of “The Wrestler.” And there’s also the documentary “I Knew It Was You,” about the tragically short life of acclaimed actor John Cazale. Given the climate of the world of independent film, I can only speculate as to whether any of these films will make it to the big screen.
There’s no question — Sundance is still a place where many of the best films of a given year are exhibited. What I’ve come to understand, however, is that Sundance, like many other significant events in the world of film, is inextricable from the Hollywood machine. This doesn’t necessarily ruin the festival for me. It just isn’t the Sundance of my dreams.