By Lisa Lindo
Once you make the decision to go to Park City, there are so many interesting films to eagerly look forward to. Just as exciting is actually meeting the new crop of filmmakers about to make their cinematic debut at Sundance. You get to know these relatively unknown cinemists* before the rest of the world does, and over the course of the 10-day festival see their transformation into pop culture butterflies.
Amongst the films accepted, you'll see writers
and directors that are Sundance staples returning to SFF triumphantly with yet
another flick. Alot of those films come to Utah with distribution in
place, but overall most of the titles are sitting hopefuls, trying hard to
catch the eye of a distributor who will take their worldwide rights in exchange
for a theatrical release. To be clear, Sundance is not a market like AFM or
Cannes. It just acts like one.
In The Beginning
In 1969, Robert Redford purchased the tiny Utah ski area, Timp Haven, and decided to name it after the character he played in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. When Bob bought the land now known as Sundance he envisioned the careful growth of a community committed to art and the preservation of its environment. Even now, the mostly preserved area still offers an atmosphere steeped in cultural heritage, inspired by the Ute tribes that first inhabited the canyon.
Wanting to offer other artists a place to stretch their wings, Redford established there a Sundance Institute in 1981 as a place where screenwriters, playwrights and filmmakers could develop their craft surrounded by the peaceful and insightful elements of nature.
Investors began eyeing the picturesque locale as a place to erect expansive condominiums, but Redford wanted to preserve the land ... “to develop a little and to preserve a great deal.” Rejecting advice from New York investors to fill the canyon with an explosion of lucrative hotels and condominiums, Redford saw his newly acquired land as an ideal locale for environmental conservation and artistic experimentation. From the start, it was Sundance Institute’s ability to blend process and place that made it dynamically unique, placing it in uncharted waters on a steady course all its own.
In 1978, Salt Lake City's chamber of commerce,
the state of Utah, and The Utah Film Commission founded an event to
attract not only tourists to the Salt Lake City, but also to bring in filmmakers who would in turn
want to shoot something in Utah. The individual founders included Brigham
Young University film grad Sterling Van Wagenen and John Earle of the Utah
State Film Commission. It was first called the "US Film Festival" and shortly
afterwards changed the name to "Utah - United States Film Festival." Salt
Lake City hosted the first year, but its strict drinking laws limited the party
element that makes or breaks a film festival and - with only eight films
playing in competition - Van Wagenen and Earle's event ended up $40,000 in
debt. Director Sydney Pollack, who had joined the festival's board of
directors, suggested that moving the venue to a ski area would most likely increase
attendance. The Utah - United States Film Festival did move to Park
City in 1981, but still managed to run in the red - this time to the tune
Van Wagenen began working for Robert Redford’s Wildwood company, and he was able to convince the actor and long-time Utah resident to come on board as the festival’s chairman. Many original US Film Festival staffers were involved in the planning stages of Redford's Sundance Institute, so there was some synergy there.
"From the point of view of the Institute, the Labs were working,
movies were getting made. The desire for its own festival
drew them to Park City which had the only usable theatre in the area,
The Egyptian Theatre. Park City needed an economic boost
for the time period between December and the spring when
tourists were usually sparce. So it worked for the Institute and
it worked for the city. Now it's an animal of its own, with a heartbeat,
moving arms and legs, and a soul - a wild, independent soul."
~ Robert Redford
Of the films showing at the Utah US Film Festival in 1989, the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature went to Nancy Savoca’s romantic comedy TRUE LOVE, and a documentary about the Apollo missions, FOR ALL MANKIND, scooped both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the non-fiction category. Michael Lehmann’s cult teen sensation HEATHERS played for the first time, there was a centennial celebration of Charlie Chaplin’s birth, and a retrospective of John Cassavetes’ work that all played a part in the year's successful festival programming, but it was the other Audience Award winner that year, Steven Soderbergh’s $1 million dollar budgeted SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, that stole all the headlines. The movie was the breakout film of the 1989 festival drawing enthusiastic praise from critics and audience members, which in turn stoked huge interest amongst studio acquisition reps. Bought by Miramax, the movie delivered on its promise, winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes later that year and grossing an impressive $25 million at the U.S. box office. What’s more, the movie’s success only heightened the mystique of the festival and solidified the belief that anybody could hit the jackpot at Sundance. What was widely publicized was that the year before, in 1988, Soderbergh had been in Park City ... working as a volunteer driver.
His first year running things brought us the Jean Genet-inspired triptych of stories, POISON. It was writer/director Todd Haynes' first feature and the major story of the festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic section, and raising the profile of the new Queer Cinema movement. Also making his debut was Richard Linklater, whose movie SLACKER, a free-flowing portrait of his hometown of Austin, TX, won huge acclaim and was picked up by Orion Classics. Made for just $23,000, it inspired a spate of ultra low-budget American indies which would crop up at the festival in years to come. Hal Hartley’s sophomore feature, TRUST, and John Sayles’ CITY OF HOPE also did well with audiences that year, both underlining the talent and important role these auteurs played in the new “Sundance Generation” of filmmaking. The following year, as Tom Kalin’s SWOON and Gregg Araki’s THE LIVING END played at the festival, B. Ruby Rich wrote her seminal “New Queer Cinema” article for Sight and Sound.
While the 1994 Sundance Film Festival had screenings of high-profile, glossier titles – see Hugh Grant's two entries FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL and SIRENS - the year very much belonged to low budget filmmakers. Many of the movies to emerge from the festival that year were made on a shoestring budget. There was David O. Russell’s darkly funny take on incest, SPANKING THE MONKEY, Rose Troche’s spunky lesbian romcom, GO FISH (shot in black-and-white), and Kevin Smith’s foul-mouthed iconic slacker comedy CLERKS (also shot in black-and-white). Smith’s film, a debut feature made for around $27,000 - funded on a string of maxed-out credit cards - won the Filmmakers Trophy (voted for by fellow directors) at the festival and walked away with a distribution deal from Miramax. Like SLACKER three years before, its success continued after Park City playing at Cannes later that year, grossing over $3 million at the U.S. box office, and launched Smith as a fresh new voice in indie cinema.
The 1996 edition of the Sundance Film Festival was all about extremes - big crowds, deep snow, and lots of deals being done. A record 10,000 people flocked there that year, and a record 10 staggering feet of snow draped the town over the course of the festival’s 10 days. Of course, trudging through some of the world's most beautiful snow, the famous kind you only find in Park City, falling slowly side to side like feathers floating in the wind, is not such a difficult job when your destinations are parties and cutting edge films. Many in the increasingly large crowds of attendees said they thought it was a really a romantic way to spend a week and half, and more than a few of us took to the slopes for some fresh powder skiing between screenings.
It can be hard work buying low and betting on big box office returns. For those on a mission - distributors who came looking in the valley for the next big sensation - the extra weather was just a pain in the ass and an unnecessary waste of time. Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, the most passionate pursuer of potential acquisitions, famously got into a fistfight with producer Jon Taplin over the feelgood biopic of Australian pianist David Helfgott, SHINE, one of the buzz titles of 1996, after another distributor got the rights to the movie ahead of Miramax. The big winner in ’96 was WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, Todd Solondz’s caustically comic portrayal of the perils of adolescence, which took home the Grand Jury Prize. Leon Gast’s Ali/Foreman documentary WHEN WE WERE KINGS grabbed a Special Jury Prize and BIG NIGHT, the brilliant culinary drama co-directed by actors Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
In 2009, Geoffrey Gilmore stood down as head of the festival after close to two decades in charge. His contribution to independent cinema, his importance to the landscape of independent film, can not be understated. Gilmore, now a universally recognized leader of the development of independent film, is one of the film industry’s most widely-trusted and influential figures. During his tenure at Sundance, Gilmore was responsible for film selection, artistic direction and general festival management. He was a programming consultant for Robert Redford and the Sundance Channel since its inception in 1996, and helped build the Sundance Group as well as the Sundance Film Series. He created and directed the annual Sundance Independent Producers Conference and spearheaded major events and initiatives related to independent filmmaking and distribution. Basically, it is hard to think of Sundance without reflecting on Geoffrey Gilmore's legacy. He shaped the landscape, discovered and launched the careers of emerging filmmakers, and is credited with attracting break-out film sensations to Sundance such as RESERVOIR DOGS, HOOP DREAMS, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, AND INCONVENIENT TRUTH.
Gilmore was replaced by John Cooper – who had worked for the festival since 1989 - and has kept the position of steering this rather large ship until today. Right away, he wanted to stress a focus on lower budget true indie films, and did so with the introduction of the "Next" section of the festival. Next is a programming strand for features with a budget under $500,000.
In 2010, the festival created the Sundance USA program which takes certain films from the festival on tour around the country, and that same year Sundance began a collaboration with YouTube to premiere online a selection of films at the same time as they show in Park City. Steadily, the festival has expanded its footprint, adding theatre venues in neighboring cities, and in 2015 they officially annexed Salt Lake City.
"In '85, we started with 25 films, standing in front of the one
Park City theatre - the Egyptian - asking people to come in.
We never anticipated this expansion, we were only going on hope.
We didn't know that the popularity would build. We didn't know
until after the first five or six years when this growth
- way beyond my imagination - really started to take hold.
For those of you who have been regularly coming to the festival, the crowds,
and the accompanying ambush marketers* have become a thing.
So, in 2015, we expanded significantly into Salt Lake City. SLC, having come in
as a sponsor, has really worked to create a Park City/Salt Lake City
festival as one, allowing us to offer more filmmakers more theatres."
~ Robert Redford, 2015
Over the decades more than 20 million feet of 35mm film have screened at the Festival – enough film reels that, if rolled out, would stretch from New York to Paris. As the technology of film distribution has evolved, Sundance has steered away from traditional 35mm print projection. In fact, 2015 was the first year that NO films were projected from 35mm prints at Sundance.
"That's a big bomb to drop, we know, so if you need to
pour a glass of wine, or just pour out some beer for the lost medium,
we understand, see you back here shortly."
~ Sundance Til Dawn
On The Eve of Sundance
At its inception, Robert Redford intended this offshoot of the Sundance Institute as a place for independent filmmakers - who made it through the process of creation with a finished product - to get feedback from a real audience. Over the decades, what has become clear is that those films premiering at or curated by SFF, and those that have come through a mentoring process, or have gotten financial assistance, or simply were hatched out of Sundance Labs, have something special built into their DNA. It's because of the higher quality of Sundance's independently produced selections that the crowd comes, and with the crowd, come the buyers and distributors who enable these indie artists to taste the financial fruits of their labor.
BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID
Sundance Institute Labs
STRANGER THAN PARADISE
FOR ALL MANKIND
SEX, LIES, & VIDEOTAPE
FOUR WEDDINGS & A FUNERAL
WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
WHEN WE WERE KINGS
The Egyptian Theatre
Z FOR ZACHARIAH
Traditionally, the success of a film included some sort of wide-release plan of action to place the film in as many theatres as possible. These days, a theatrical release doesn't exactly mean what it used to mean. Sometimes it's just a week or two, in a limited number of theatres, and then straight to DVD and Video on Demand. Quite often the only audiences to see these labors of love in an actual theatre are the ones at Sundance, and it is that kind of anticipation that pours into each screening room throughout the week and a half that is the Sundance Film Festival.
Other than your basic rom-coms, you can pretty much count on seeing some teenage angst films, LGBTQIA* coming-out stories, subtitled shine-a-light-on-hunger-and-poverty pieces, sexual assault art house images, coming of age pics, horror genre flicks, someone is dying of something specs, and documentaries on subjects you never even heard about before.
For 2017, VR seems to be the new it genre, and we're looking forward to riding all the rides.