Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What happened to the Sundance Film Festival?

Remember when the Sundance Film Festival was a modest event where young independent filmmakers could be discovered? Someone obscure like Kevin Smith could make a little black-and-white film in a New Jersey convenience store starring his buddies for saved-up allowance money and get it shown at Sundance? What a great opportunity for kids who had no connections, no major representation, no track record to be seen and heard.

The films were uneven but so what? That was the fun of Sundance. You never knew what you’d find. And along the way you’d encounter wonderful, daring, original material.

Unfortunately, Hollywood took notice. They snatched up the best of these little gems and distributed them. A few made money. So major studios opened indie divisions. Agents and studio people started gravitating to Park City. “Reception” stopped meaning a little post-screening party at a local pub; it meant: “how many bars are you getting on your cellphone?”

For Hollywood it was perfect – a chance to buy pre-existing product they didn’t have to develop and fund, a ski vacation they could write off, and most important – a chance to finally get out of town. After taking the entire month of December off, they had been back at work for three whole weeks. Finally! Some light at the end of the tunnel.

Sundance became not about showing but selling. Bidding wars broke out for desired projects. Novice meggers were getting signed by the major ten-percentereries. Show business had arrived at the slopes.

Thus it became much harder to get your film accepted by Sundance. The amount of entries swelled to a ridiculous number. And since investors figured out there was gold in them ‘thar Utah hills, they started making movies with ringers. Known actors began appearing in these small films. Then big actors. Needless to say, these were now the films being selected. And why not? More buzz for the festival. Movie stars up close and personal. Ben Affleck getting out of a cab!

Now there are big press conferences, lavish parties, national coverage. I find it interesting that there are reviews of Sundance movies even though 99.9999999% of the readers haven’t seen them and have no access to them. It’s one thing when there are panel discussions for critics for TV shows that will premier in a few weeks. It’s another for movies at best will appear in your neighborhood art theatre in eight months or a year. So why do I care how Rashida Jones got her Sundance movie made? She got her movie made because she’s Rashida Jones. How did the kid who sold his stamp collection to fund a feature-length movie, filmed it entirely on his iPhone, and edited it off an app he uploaded – how did he get his movie made and accepted? The trouble is there are very few if any stories like that anymore, at least at Sundance.

So when I read that movies starring Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Nick Offerman, Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Keanu Reeves, John Krasinski, Sam Elliott, Krsyten Ritter, Carrie Preston, Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, Abbi Jacobson, Allison Brie, and Molly Shannon (to name but a few) have beaten the odds to make the long journey to Sundance I have to scoff. The only way Jay & Silent Bob break into Sundance now is if Kristen Stewart directs their motion picture.

And then this weekend, the studio that produced the ABC sitcom DOWNWARD DOG got Sundance to screen four episodes for a full house screening in the hopes that the strong reaction will change ABC's mind about the upcoming series.  It is slated to premier in the summer, pretty much as a throwaway.  So has that what the festival has now become, a way to better position network television series?   

I miss the Sundance Film Festival.


VP81955 said...

I suppose we should just be happy indie films still are made in this era of comic-book franchises and fast-food tie-ins. On either front -- Sundance or Hollywood -- the Ivy League bean counters win, and we lose.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

This was what I loved about Ebertfest the years I went - it's still going now and I imagine will continue to survive for many years to come - the films were all personally chosen (by Ebert then, various other reviewers in the Ebert community now) and there was absolutely not prospect of turning it into a Hollywood meat (or meet) market. The years I went, the program included movies shot on mobile phones, a hand-colored film created by two artists in their own home (MY DOG TULIP - see it, it's great), a documentary about their hometown shot among their neighbors by two brothers (the title is a zip code and I can never remember it accurately, but it's somewhere in Ohio), and many other independent films shot on tiny budgets (look up Nina Paley's SITA SINGS THE BLUES, which you can download for free because she couldn't afford distribution).

It helps that it's in Urbana-Champaign. Too flat for skiing, no palm trees. Ken, if you want a different kind of film festival...create one!


Peter said...

Ken, what's your reaction to Hacksaw Ridge getting a bunch of Oscar nominations including Best Director for Mel Gibson? Is this Hollywood officially forgiving Gibson, in which case are you disappointed your colleagues in the industry have given him another chance?

B McMolo said...

Ken, you ever read Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind? Overall I thought it was a much less enjoyable read than Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, but it could be simply on account of the personalities/ circumstances described in Down and Dirty Pictures being blander than their 70s counterparts. Maybe a few too many chapters for the common schmo like myself on the politics of Sundance distribution deals and what not, but it was all interesting, too. Anyway, given your comments here, you might enjoy it if you've never had a look.

CRL said...


Is THAT still on?

cleek said...

There's a classic South Park episode about Sundance. In it, the festival moves to South Park to get away from Park City's commercialization. Robert Redford declares that since he can't escape Hollywood, he's going to inflict Hollywood on _all_ small towns.

It's also the episode with Chef's Salty Chocolate Balls.


Richard John Marcej said...

Well, you've just saved me a trip. As a movie buff I've been meaning to one day travel to Sundance for a movie going filled trip. But after hearing about how it's changed, well, I'll just find another film festival to visit.

Eric J said...

Young Kevin Smiths are probably too busy building a catalog of youtube videos to worry about Sundance. A lot more accessible for a kid from Red Bank, New Jersey than trying to come up with $27,575 (according to Wikipedia) to make a movie and fly to Utah in the hopes that someone might see it and like it.

Might be better to go into talks with 127,575 subscribers to your youtube channel.

Ryan said...

Hacksaw Ridge 6 nominations, Ken. Disgusting isn't it? With one for Mel.

Jack said...

Great post Ken!

Will you post your take on the Oscar nominations? Or will you skip it because of Mel Gibson?

I wish some celebrity slams Hollywood for nominating him.

J Lee said...

Sundance is going through the same thing Comi-Con in San Diego has gone through -- what once was a small event for niche interests and fans did well enough to attract the larger Hollywood promoters and turn the event into something far different than what was originally intended.

Unknown said...

Same thing happened to the Independence Spirit Awards. They used to be really fun to watch, interesting new people. Now it's the same nominees as Oscars.

MikeN said...

Relative to Hollywood, Gibson is benign. Given what we've seen with his dad, Gibson was probably raised a Jew-hater. Yet in a drunken rage, what does he say to the cop- "Jews start all the wars." Leads me to exonerate Gibson from the charge of anti-Semitism.
That there is something wrong with him didn't surprise me, as I expected it just from his movies having all the bloodlust.

NIcms said...

My thesis film from a small film school in Ohio won a Sundance award back in the day. There's no way it would even get in now. Very frustrating. Even Slamdance has become what it initially was founded to rail against.

Darth Weasel said...

a few of the comments on here speak volumes. "People saw something and thought it was good but shouldn't it not be considered good because of who made it"?

MikeN said...

Darth Weasel, true, but should a line be drawn anywhere? Roman should have been in jail, and instead fled the country. Why is he even working? Isn't it a crime to help a fugitive?

The Cosby Show is an excellent show. Can I really separate the show from the idea that this guy is raping women? I can justify a little that some of these stories don't make sense, for example any rape story that involves the Playboy Mansion. It is like with Bill OReilly. Woman gives story of sexual harassment, "the next time we got together".

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Downward Dog? If not, how do you know it is undeserving of Sundance? I have seen the whole season and can tell you, it is.