If a Film Falls in the Forest…
Most Hollywood types are ditching the Park City snow for the Inauguration this year. Will Sundance become a ghost town?
Most Hollywood types are ditching the Park City snow for the Inauguration this year. Here are five hot films they'll miss.
Last June at the Los Angeles Film Festival, former Miramax president Mark Gill gave a speech on the state of the indie film industry. His thesis statement? "Yes, the sky really is falling." This was a full fiscal quarter before the economic crisis hit the point of government intervention, but it was already readily apparent that the institutions of independent film were having a down year. With Time Warner folding art house arms Warner Independent and Picturehouse and severely scaling back New Line, Paramount absorbing their Oscar nomination factory Paramount Vantage, and the Weinstein Company spectacularly failing to live up to expectations, the high end of the market — i.e., the companies with the capital to make, acquire, and/or market films that anyone other than the dedicated cineaste has actually heard of—has been radically diminished overnight.
Cut to January 2009, and over the week and a half worth of work days leading up to the opening of the Sundance Film Festival, trade journals indieWIRE, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety have been chock full of stories speculating that this year's Sundance is going to be a ghost town. The doomcasting goes beyond the trade press—stuck at JFK Thursday morning on a flight delay, I saw a CNN segment stating that "all the stars" will be leaving on Monday, the festival's fourth full day and traditionally one of its busiest, in order to head East for the inauguration. Even I played my part in the trend, publishing testimony from five members of the press who decided the trip to Utah just wasn't worth it this year.
We're obviously on the cusp of something new, and potentially big at Sundance. But I may be one of the few actually there to see it.
One of the boldest pre-Sundance Chicken Little stories, by Stephen Zeitchik in The Hollywood Reporter picked up on the fact that the Festival is no longer the seller's paradise of 1990s myth; in fact, these days the average independent film doesn't land distribution for a full four months after their festival debut––whether or not that festival is Sundance. The cautious testimony of several top sales agents led Zeitchik to ask the provocative question, "What if Sundance isn't about the sales anymore?"
It's a fair question, but it suggests that Sundance was always about nothing but sales. This is hardly the case. In 1989, Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape premiered in Park City and kick-started the indie film revolution as a mainstream, mall-multiplex phenomenon. Twenty years later to the week, Soderbergh is traveling from state to state promoting Che, a 4.5 hour art biopic about the famed revolutionary which no American studio wanted to make and only one distributor (IFC) had the flexibility (and balls) to release to Soderbegh's specifications. But Soderbergh's story is an anomaly, and most in the know would agree that the structures and business models that launched his career are now failing more often than they succeed. The fact is, if you took the market element out of Sundance today, what you'd have left is over 100 films of wildly varying quality, reduced over the course of ten days by critical opinion and audience reception to a handful of stand-outs which are sure to the leave the festival with, if not a deal, than certainly pristine word of mouth and built-in niche credibility. What happens after those ten days is more up in the air than ever before.
We're obviously on the cusp of something new, and potentially big; but the climate is such that if it happens at Sundance this week, I may be one of the few actually there to see it. My plan is to make the most of it. Here are five films that I'm looking forward to seeing in Park City. You'll definitely be hearing more about all of these titles over the course of the next week.
An Education — Scripted by Nick Hornby and directed by Dogme 95 vet Lone Scherfig ( Italian for Beginners), this 1960s period drama follows the May-December (or is that March-May?) relationship between a teen schoolgirl and a charismatic older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard.
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men — This adaptation of a collection of short stories by David Foster Wallace is the only film based on the late literary star's work to have yet been produced. A labor of love directed by John Krasinski, star of The Office, word on the street is that the several-years-in-the-making Men deviates from its source significantly. But make no mistake––the curiosity factor on this one is through the roof.
Humpday — Two college bros get together for the first time in ten years and, within a few hours and after a lot of drinks, somehow end up pacting to, um, perform together in an homemade sex tape. It may sound like your everyday Judd Apatow bromance, but this no-budget indie comedy was directed by a woman (award winning filmmaker Lynn Shelton, who also co-stars).
Moon — Directed by Duncan Jones (formerly known as Zowie Bowie, son of David), this metafiction-esque update of 2001 tracks a weary astronaut who, after three years manning a solar energy station on the dark side of the moon by his lonesome, suffers a breakdown and starts to question the nature of his existence. Sam Rockwell gives a spectacular, technology-aided performance.
The September Issue — Documentary and reality TV vet RJ Cutler spent nine months following Anna Wintour, as the notorious editrix spearheaded the effort to produce Vogue’s biggest and most important issue of the year. Imagine the Clinton campaign verite expose The War Room (which Cutler produced), transplanted to Wintour's mysterious world, and you'll get a sense of why this is one of the most anticipated documentaries in competition.