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Form Follows Function: Noah Cowan on Three Winter Festivals Circa 1999

A Vietnamese person rides in a small wooden boat toward a building in the distance, crossing water that is full of floating lily pads.Three Seasons, courtesy of Hopper Stone.

The following essay appeared in Filmmaker‘s Spring, 1999 print issue and is being reprinted in remembrance of Noah Cowan. Cowan, a festival programmer, non-profit executive director and critic, was also Filmmaker‘s Contributing Editor and chief festival correspondent, and he passed away January, 25, 2023 in Los Angeles.

“Festival strategy” has become one of the more annoying buzz terms of the American independent film “industry.” However, the presence of three major festivals, all distinctive and legendary, clustered together in the winter months demands, in fact, that any serious American independent filmmaker finishing a film in the fall recognize the need for just such a strategy.

Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin, running from mid-January to the end of February, each have a huge significance, both financial and critical, for films and filmmakers. Yet to understand these festivals and their relationship to American independent moviemaking properly, we need to grapple with a debate slightly more philosophical and extended (in the case of Sundance) than might be expected.

Surely, the most anguished topic this magazine and its friends debate is the very nature of “The American Independent Film.” What is it? How do we identify it? And why does such an identification matter? In general, I find this debate rather beside the point and inclined to Ockhamist hair splitting. (At what point in a negative pickup by a studio does a film cease to be independent? What is the level of P&A spending that magically transforms an independent release into a studio release? Do certain companies or distributors have an essentially “independent” property (nominus) that they automatically bestow on their productions?) Producers, I suspect, find that the term “independent” is simply a shorthand for cash flow problems, camaraderie and downstream distribution concerns. Meanwhile, for distributors ranging from Miramax to Turbulent Arts, the term must be meaningless. For the rest of the world, it’s likely just a marketing hook.

But Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin care deeply about these questions. Each largely defines their relationship to American film through the term “independent.” And, as these three events are key players in the festival world, filmmakers cannot ignore their specific concerns and curatorial mandates.

This year’s Sundance seems like an impressively salient touchstone for these topics. Tony Bui’s Three Seasons—shot like an ’80s Bertolucci epic, narratively structured like a ’60s European portmanteau film, made in Vietnam and almost entirely in Vietnamese—seems like the season’s big winner: Sundance Grand Jury and Audience Prizes, Berlin Competition, lots of accolades. But, depending on one’s point of view, perhaps it was Happy, Texas, a film so conservatively made that even Sundance programmers commented on its studio-style polish, that won the show. Its multimillion dollar sale surely enriched its producers, director and financiers, propelling them into a happy future within the Miramax empire. Yet a lot of ink was spilled about why these films weren’t actually American Independent Movies.

There was a time when independents were represented by iconoclasts making offbeat narrative cinema who bounced in and out of Hollywood, like John Cassavetes and John Sayles, before settling into production structures outside the studios and distribution (sometimes) within it. For other critics and audiences, pioneers like Stan Brakhage, Robert Frank, Lizzie Borden, Kenneth Anger and Charles Burnett and their respective work in experimental, documentary, women’s, gay and black cinema were the progenitors of contemporary American independent film. Of course, the other fundamental godhead of the American independent cinema is the exploitation world of the 1970s. Jonathan Demme is probably the most famous graduate of this school, but the American curatorial world, its industry and even most of its critical judiciary has shamefully avoided the inheritors of this tradition when their films play in festival contexts.

Not surprisingly, the melding together of these three fundamentally different types of cinema into a single fundamental term—“independent”—leaves the programmers at the three winter festivals somewhat taxonomically challenged.

To be honest, Sundance does a pretty impressive job of reconciling the fundamentally incoherent strands of Indie America—even, tentatively, the B-movies. This is a good thing. Sundance doesn’t have much room to maneuver, as it is founded on the term in question. So, once the nature of Sundance’s inherent identity crisis—that it is faced with an essentially schizophrenic selection challenge—is acknowledged, then all the screeching about “selling out” with Happy, Texas or the carefully non-racist questioning of Three Seasons’ position in the Competition seems more than a little ridiculous.

(A longer analysis of the lineage of these films would probably cite Happy, Texas as direct descendent of the sometimes masterful straight-to-video comedies of the ’80s, especially the Columbia Tristar Home Video/IRS titles, which themselves are inspired by Roger Corman’s mid-’60s period; Three Seasons, on the other hand, is as much an American’s internal ethnic rethinking as Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust or Burnett’s early films. Bui has just done his work in another country.)

Another argument that fundamentally questions Sundance’s take on independent cinema asks if Sundance has “outgrown” this curatorial balancing act. Its various proponents suggest that Sundance would be better off without “certain” films. However, these questioners hail from radically different crowds. Nearsighted industry folk want the festival to show only commercially viable movies (however that might be determined), thereby reducing Sundance to little more than a market. Meanwhile, the Indie ’68 crowd, the old guard of the ’70s documentary and experimental movements who (with good reason) feel marginalized by the festival, demand that Sundance stop kowtowing to the industry and promote oppositional or experimental cinema.

How seriously should we take these requests? Quite, actually. While they seem to go against the very grain of what a festival is, the reasoning behind these demands for a curatorial shift lies at the very heart of Sundance’s PR problem: the hatred of cellphone-toting attorneys and agents; the sneers heard on the bus about “jerk-off” experimental movies; the critical huffing about “lack of substance”; the incredible all-or-nothing attitude of acquisitions executives. These complaints arise from the contradictory set of expectations held by all those attending Sundance. How better to deal with the problem than to narrow the focus?

What this argument lacks is an understanding of how festivals, particularly Sundance, “add value” to work. Films which are commercially interesting for major distributors are given critical credibility when they are set against more challenging work. This is true even when critics slam the commercial movie; outside of a festival context, critics are not compelled to address the fundamental filmmaking skills in a film—just ask Kevin Smith to compare his Mallrats and Chasing Amy reviews.

As for the ’68ers, theirs is more of a publicity problem than a curatorial one. The fact remains, though, that they are better off having their films play the important Sundance Film Festival, thereby gaining visibility and setting up more satisfying and successful engagements later (at museums, retros and smaller festivals devoted to the work). And, especially for those filmmakers looking to create more accessible work, there are plenty of opportunities to discuss how they might do that.

The last critical attack on Sundance’s curatorial strategy concerns its sections—where films play in the festival. The argument here runs like this: Of course, Sundance must remain all-embracing, but surely these commercial movies—not only Happy, Texas,
but Trick and Tumbleweeds, too—can be kicked upstairs to Premieres or a sub-category thereof, giving them more prestige and allowing more space for the smaller films. Plus, anything vaguely experimental should be consigned to the Frontier section.

Curiously, these suggestions echo the two significant errors in program construction that I participated in as a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival. About 10 years ago, we established the Special Presentations category for all sorts of good reasons. At the time, it existed between our Galas (like Sundance’s Premieres) and our Main Program. Over the years, it has mushroomed and turned into a monster for the simple reason that everyone thinks their film is “Special.” We grapple with the problem to this day.

These proposals would also affect that wonderful peculiarity of Sundance—acquisition executives have to cover even the most out-there cinematic examples just because they are in Competition.

In Toronto, we also toyed with a Frontier-like section called The Edge for a few years. For us, it was a disaster. Audiences for those films plummeted, press ran screaming and directors felt marginalized. I cannot believe Sundance’s Frontier section is not doing the same. It should be sent directly to the trash, and the spoils should be divided between the Competition and American Spectrum. Program notes can easily indicate a film’s experimental nature.

Sundance’s PR problem, as well as the feelings of marginalization felt by the “alternative” filmmakers, have, I think, more to do with Sundance’s self-description than anything else. Instead of offering a historically sound defense of their amazing balancing act within independent film—and it is breathtaking—we hear much more often from the festival a kind of wooly utopianism about cinema from “a personal place” and stuff like that. Robert Redford is especially guilty of such obfuscating and overgeneralized descriptions of the “meaning” of Sundance in his public utterances. While this public posture serves to not stir up controversy, it also allows everyone to think they can get everything they want from the festival.

But they can’t. And the organizers know it. Smaller films do get left behind. (As a programmer, I know how especially galling this must be for them; your most marginalized children are just the ones you want to fight the hardest for). What the festival needs—and, to their credit, they acknowledge it—is an initiative to redress the balance between its more commercial flavors and its (current) also-rans. Responses so far have been mortifyingly 1960s, though: furrowed-brow seminars, hand-wringing press conferences by Redford, righteous theater personnel lecturing uncomprehending buyers. Even the ritual cheering for routine “turn off your phone” announcements seems an especially pathetic “fight back” attempt by attendees. Enough of this. Promotional support—financial, if need be—and distribution advisors are the way to go to give films not already on the super-hot list a fighting chance. It requires a much more activist approach to their own de facto market by Sundance—which might be why they resist it. 

Rotterdam has an extremely diverse and adventurous program every year. Its approach to American independent cinema is a sophisticated one, if not so complex as Sundance’s must be. On the curatorial side, Director Simon Field is interested in films for the Festival’s Tiger Awards and Main Competition sections that display cinematic innovation. Commercial indies play the Festival normally only if they have local distribution in place. For them, “American independent” is synonymous with “unique artistic vision.” Harmony Korine and Hal Hartley would be archetypal directors for them. Yet this is the same criteria for all the films in the festival. That is Rotterdam’s other peculiarity: they do not see American independents as necessarily distinct entities in world cinema. So that means films that seem connected to larger world movements—think Gummo and I Stand Alone or First Love, Last Rites and also the new romantic cinema coming out of Japan—are all part of their mandate.

But Rotterdam also has a section of their festival which explores an idea of American independent film that Sundance does not touch. The ideas of media looking in at film and film pushing out past the confines of film make up their most celebrated program: Exploding Cinema. This suggests that American
independent cinema has a crust (or maybe a shadow) and by exposing that residue, one gets a secret look into its developing trends.

But Rotterdam’s fame in independent production circles ultimately comes from an event full of films that haven’t even begun production. The innovative, extremely well-run Cinemart has welcomed directors and producers for some time. Few come back with anything bad to say. Carved out of the festival’s middle period, participants gather from around the globe to meet with representatives from every important European financing source and many Asian and American ones, too. This is not to say that the Cinemart has delivered full budgets wrapped in a nice bow for prospective features. Few films leave the event with any hard cash at all, but almost everyone cites its importance for placing films highlighted there into the top tier of future acquisitions. And, more importantly, producers who later need money to finish their films have found contacts made during the Cinemart much more welcoming than the unaware. This enormously important initiative has allowed Rotterdam to box above its weight on the international festival circuit.

Berlin, a few weeks later and highly competitive with Rotterdam, also has a multifaceted approach to American independents. Its programming structure is divided into three very distinct groupings and consequent curatorial agendas. The Competition rarely shows more than one independent a year; it is dominated by American films from studios destined for major release in Germany. And, while the Competition is
extremely helpful for sales, a berth doesn’t usually garner any massive attention. (Three Seasons was fairly invisible at the Festival by no fault of its representatives. The press looks to the Competition for the stars. Period.) The Competition’s approach to the term “independent” is basically to deny its utility for their selections. A good independent film for them is simply big enough to compete with studio films and major new work by significant European and Asian filmmakers.

The Forum is old-school when it comes to U.S. cinema. (Their approach to Asian cinema is considerably more all-embracing, which smacks of something unpleasant to me, but that’s an aside.) Basically, if a film does not evolve from clear experimental cinema pedigrees, the Forum does not pay much attention to it. As you might guess, this makes it the darling of the Indie ’68 crowd, and it is by far the biggest profile for this kind of cinema in the world.

The Panorama’s American Independent selection comes in two flavors. Its Specials section is an often happy home for more commercial but narratively interesting features. Films like John Dahl’s The Last Seduction often turn up here, and it has a deserved reputation for interesting discoveries. Its other sections show more accessible work than the Forum, in general, but the majority of its American selections are weighted towards gay and lesbian cinema, one of its primary mandates. This makes it, by far, Europe’s primary launching pad for gay- and lesbian-themed films.

It is curious indeed that Berlin takes the exact opposite approach to Rotterdam. American independent films are absolutely seen as specific providers of content and curated in many ways against themselves, as opposed to Rotterdam, which views them in a more global context. Both approaches have their merits, and both serve as competing models for almost every other festival in the world.

Berlin is also the only one of the winter festivals with an official market. A “market” in this context is a convention space with booths manned by sellers and with buyers (and many others) wandering around inside. There are also adjacent screening rooms in another part of the building in which sellers rent blocks of time to screen their wares. Films in the Berlin market do not need to have any official connection with the Festival’s selection. 

American independents lucky enough to have major international sales agents are, of course, represented exclusively by them. Key sellers of American independent film, like Alliance, Good Machine and Films Transit, do brisk business here. For other filmmakers, there are two options. The Kodak-sponsored American Independents Abroad, run by the omnipresent IFP, reps about a dozen films out of their well-positioned booth and advises participants on promotion and dealmaking. The films involved go through a selection process—which is much more rigorous than the IFFP, by the way—due to limited space and oversubscription. Sandy Mandelberger provides a sales-agent-for-hire service out of his International Media Resources stand, and many filmmakers have found a happy home in his care. Neither of these umbrella arrangements normally amounts to much financially for the filmmaker. You pay to be part of it, and sales are not expected on the whole. However, both outfits give you an anchor to take care of inquiries for your film as well as assistance with further networking.

American independent filmmakers also tend to feel more comfortable in Berlin than in its colleagues in the “Big Three”—Cannes is way too overwhelming, and Venice is too baffling; both are way too expensive. Berlin also attracts the largest number of middle-level American festival curators (especially the gay ones), and they often act as surrogate “parents” for filmmakers.

By dint of sheer numbers, American independents also have an advantage. They are simply at the center of most discussions and, with the festival giving so much weight to their importance, distribution and TV companies take notice.

Many readers of this article are probably looking for something more strategic. Do I go to all of them? Which is best for my film? Etc. Unfortunately, you cannot attend all three, even if you could survive the grueling month that would be involved. Rotterdam and Berlin have become almost entirely exclusionary; Berlin will not allow films to go to Rotterdam first except in exceptional circumstances. (Like an administrative error!)

First of all, getting into Sundance is great. Not getting in is OK, too. There are lots of other festivals that provide plenty of opportunities for a film’s eventual commercial and artistic success. (Although no other American festival does it in such a BIG way.) So, instead of a go-for-broke Sundance-or-nothing putsch, an intelligent downstream festival strategy—ugh, what a term—is priority one.

There’s no better place to start than Rotterdam and Berlin. Even if you do make it into Sundance, an invitation in hand from Rotterdam or Berlin is a major plus when seeking a worldwide deal or high-end press attention. They are highly selective festivals, so their choices mean something to film professionals, even in the Sundance mayhem. 

How one decides between Rotterdam and Berlin is a complicated choice. Apply to both. If the film makes it into both, weigh carefully the merits of both; as important as Sundance is domestically, these two can make or break a film’s international career. But the point of this article is that you as a filmmaker must be absolutely clear what kind of “American independent film” you have created and let that knowledge guide your future festival decisions.

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