THOUGHTS ON SUNDANCE: MAKING CENTS OF THE SPECTACLE
In today’s world of accelerated web journalism, normally I’d think I’m past the Sundance shelf date filing these final thoughts a couple of days after I returned from Rotterdam. But, despite all the columnists and websites, I notice that Sundance wrap-ups are still occurring and that a number of premiere films have yet to receive any press out of the festival at all. Like many others, I weighted my own attendance towards the festival’s first half (blame Rotterdam again) and will try to catch up on a number of films I missed on tape back here in New York.
For the moment, though, some thoughts:
The Spectacle. A few years ago the physical environment of Sundance seemed to burst under the weight of the dotcom boom. There were more people, more parties, more celebrity razzle-dazzle, and the fest felt overwhelmed. When the dotcom bubble burst, Sundance seemed to quiet down a bit and the focus went back to the films. This year, the glitz quotient boomeranged back through the roof. Stars as unlikely as Pamela Anderson and Sylvester Stallone made bee-lines for the festival, Paris Hilton became a Sundance regular, and conscience-stricken indie actors debated the ethics of making off with the giant amounts of swag on offer.
I didn’t mind all of this. With industry screenings at the Yarrow and the spacious new Racquet Club functioning as a release-valve for Sundance’s historical overcrowding, the festival effectively completed its move away from Main Street. If you only wanted to see the movies, you could shuttle around the various theaters (save the now-lonely Egyptian, which is the sole Main Street house) and avoid the hoopla.
But if you have something to do with the making of independent film, you have understand the positive effect of the Sundance spectacle, something that’s easier to do without the phony economy of the dotcom era confusing the issue. The fact is, on purely financial terms, independent film is a bad investment. Usually, a very bad investment. And for many, whether it’s the dentist with some discretionary income, a slumming star, a d.p. willing to cut his rate, or the former P.A. who works for free for a year for an associate producer credit, the experience of Sundance is part of a film’s actual return on its investment. That that experience is capable of creating a singular acquisitions environment capable of producing real cash returns goes without saying. What is increasingly clear is that mere admittance to the festival is for many a positive value that drives and ultimately validates their investment.
This was underscored by a story a friend told me of running into the representative of a major Hollywood star, both of whom were in Sundance with a film for the first time. For this obscenely wealthy star and his rep, as they wandered through Main Street’s art-imbibed mixture of the quaint and the glitzy, they had finally made it.