No surprise, here, peeps. I made the annual pilgrimage to independent film's one and only true convention - The Sundance Film Festival. In no way do I want to belittle Slamdance by not including them in the title of this blog. Slamdance is a dynamic event in its own right. But it exists as an alternative to Sundance and still exists in its shadow - rather successfully and happily, it seems.
People always ask me why I would bother to go to Sundance without having a film there. And I'm always stunned by this question. Officially, Sundance is, of course, a terrific film festival. Unofficially, Sundance is a film market (although it began to wane in this respect, film buying unexpectedly re-energized this year). Sundance is also a meeting place, a connection point and a deal-making matrix. It's home to a number of whacked out sideshows and a crazy clash of various classes of indie film society. Which, in totality, makes it indie film's only true convention. However, instead of Fez hats, everyone marches up and down Main Street in woolly caps or fur-lined ear muffs.
And like any convention, people go for either business or pleasure…or, most often, both. Both suits me just fine. On the business end, I wanted to connect with a bunch of peeps with whom I have a long history and with whom I'd like to keep the connection alive. That includes filmmakers, producers, actors, festival programmers, vendors, sponsors, consultants, bloggers and more. Since I am in perpetual fundraising mode, I also go to see where the money is. I've met more than one investor or potential investor at Sundance. But I also like to get a feel for where the money is coming from for the films in Sundance and Slamdance - try to get a finger on the film-funding zeitgeist of the moment. I also like to get a sense of what kind of projects filmmakers are putting together and, perhaps more importantly, how they are putting them together - how and where they are developing their stories, assembling crew and cast, utilizing equipment, etc., etc. And, of course, I go to see the films, themselves - although, to my perpetual dismay, I usually end up getting to do this the least of all.
There are many more business reasons I go to Sundance, but the primary reason I go is not really business or social. It's creative. I go for inspiration. Whether it's from seeing a really terrific film (or negative inspiration from seeing a truly disappointing one), or hearing an incredible behind-the-scenes filmmaking story or just being in the energetic mix of wildly talented beings, I never walk away from Park City without some powerful burst of inspiration and recharged enthusiasm for the filmmaking work that lies ahead of me.
That's not to say that Park City, during Sundance, doesn't have more than it's share of Hollywood, and even Vegas-style, yuckiness. But this is almost all on a social front. The carnival-like atmosphere that prevails over the first half of the festival (the first weekend, mostly) threatens to completely overwhelm the festival itself. There are parties every five feet (and/or five minutes) and sometimes a dozen of them happening simultaneously. But it's not all warm and fuzzy. Nearly every party is like an exclusive big-city club literally designed to separate the "in" crowd from the "wish I could get in" crowd.
But that stuff doesn't bother me and, in fact, I totally understand it. There are so many people converging on Park City, every single party could be like a NYC subway at rush hour - creating an endless string of Fire Marshal shutdowns. People must be kept out for safety reasons. Also, let's be honest. Vegas-style yuckiness also includes a pervasive sense of desperation. Obviously, Sundance attracts more than its share of dreamers, schemers, wannabes and never-wills. Many of them so desperately want something they don't already have and channel that energy into getting into parties. It becomes their status symbol and/or symbol of achievement. More power to them. If they are smart and thick-skinned, they will do just fine. Party-givers, however, can be forgiven for not wanting to stuff their joints with hordes of these types. So, yes, the "list" has practical use. I just wish they could handle that stuff sans the attitude and not make everyone feel as if they are trying to sneak into the White House.
So, all that said, how was Sundance this year? Personally, I thought it rocked. I had a blast. Keep in mind you are hearing this from someone who only saw three films out of hundreds. If you were there just for the films, or mostly just for the films, you may have a completely different opinion. But I know many of the Sundance programmers quite well and have complete confidence in their ability to program a fairly broad mix of films - from blatantly commercial to aggressively arty - and always offer up a sizable share of nice cinematic gems. So, I'm just going to assume the festival held up on that end. I know there was an extraordinary amount of sales this year. Not sure what is accounting for that, but my friend and fellow filmmaker Davidson Cole (Design, Sundance 2002) points out that, although there were a lot of sales, most of the films sold were very "safe" films. Meaning, they did little to challenge mainstream preconceptions of what cinema is about. Perhaps more "safe" films were programmed this year than usual. Or more made and therefore less of the other stuff to choose from. Or maybe Sundance programmed the same ratio of "safe" films as always and buyers are simply spreading their budgets - paying less per film, but buying more films. Who knows? I really can't explain with any certainty the surge in film sales. Nor do I feel like trying. I still think making a film with the intent of selling it to a film distributor for a sizable advance is like panning for gold. Good luck with that.
So, I went up this year with Davidson, his friend Ryan Suffren, producer and friend LInda Miller and good friend/biz partner Jim Hoffman. With the help of a couple of air mattresses, we managed to stuff ourselves into a nice one-bedroom condo right down the street from Sundance HQ - the Marriot Hotel. As usual, I set up the parties I was going to go to in advance of the festival, but keeping myself loose for anything that might come up. The others had not, especially Linda, who decided to come along at the last minute. But Linda has produced over 25 features, so she clearly knows the lay of the land and her share of peeps. Same can be said of Davidson and Ryan. And Jim, although not a filmmaker, has been to Sundance many times and is incredibly self-sufficient there. So, everybody had a plan for themselves, but we were fortunate enough to get our individual plans to dovetail enough so that we got to actually enjoy each other's company.
Davidson Cole, Jim Hoffman, me and Ryan Suffren crowding the frame on a chilly Park City Street.
So, without going into a boring play by play, I'll just give a quick overview. I went to 2 features, one shorts program, 1 seminar and 8,950 parties. I connected with dozens of people I already know and were excited to see again and dozens more I already know and was not excited to see again. I also made a number of great new connections. My favorite parties were the Film Independent Party because so many great filmmaking peeps I know were there and the RED STATE (didn't get to see the movie, however) premiere party - which was relatively hospitable and low-key, in a cool space with nice peeps and a kick-ass DJ. It was just plain fun as hell and followed in the wake of Kevin Smith announcing he'd purchased his own movie for $20 to distribute himself. Awesome!! I think people will be watching that process very closely.
The two features I saw were "The Bengali Detective" and "Take Shelter". Both need an editing job, in my opinion, although "Begali Detective" suffered most from that issue. It has compelling characters and really gives a nice portrait of life in Calcutta, but the various story threads are woven together awkwardly and do not maintain dramatic or even comedic tension very effectively. Just my opinion. "Take Shelter" is a mature and gripping piece of work that simply needs a haircut to shave off some of the excess/repetition. But, of course, both were worthwhile films to have seen. Shorts Program ll was very good with only one film that totally missed the mark. But I won't say which one as short filmmakers have enough struggle ahead of them without someone like me kicking dirt on them.
I went to a brief seminar given by my friend Peter Broderick, an eloquent self-distribution guru/lecturer that took place during the IndieGoGo party, which, he pointed out, is kind of a novelty. A party with content. Interesting. But tough to get the partiers to keep quiet. The seminar was, not surprisingly given it was hosted by IndieGoGo, about crowdfunding and Peter succinctly pointed out a lot of key things to consider if you want to create a successful campaign. He also introduced a lot of cool projects that benefitted from this grassroots funding approach. Statistically, you still can't fund a larger indie through IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, but you can definitely get the project rolling or even totally fund a short or microbudget indie.
We also spent some time at Sundance's New Frontier which was in the Miner's Lodge and got to see some very cool multi-media exhibits. Best part of it, however, was running into Lance Weiler, who just happened to be there doing a brief dissertation on "Pandemic" his expansive trans-media project. The amount of work, energy and THOUGHT he puts into his projects is just staggering. He's truly a genius and innovator, but I must confess I am sometimes overwhelmed by the directions his mind and projects take and makes me want to scurry home to a simple, comfortable re-watching of "The Bicycle Thief". But his work is not just entertainment. He devises things through his creative work that is applicable to all kinds of other platforms - including the tracking of all manner of global phenomena. I love that he's out there trailblazing for the rest of us and expanding our ideas of what media is capable of doing.
Finally, we closed out our trip on Tuesday night with a surprise invitation to a thing called "Chefdance". I'd heard of it before, of course, but always dismissed it as one of Sundance's cheesy sideshows - even if it is often attended by various high-rollers. But this particular night was hosted in part by my friends Christo DiMassis and Elana Krausz who sweetly and generously invited me and Davidson to the exclusive nightly meal/event. We wound up having a great time and connecting with a lot of great new and old peeps. The multi-course meal and fine wine were great, of course, but the energy of the room was surprisingly good and I felt like I could genuinely connect with people. Not sure if it's always that way or if that particular night was under Christo and Elana's influence. In any event, it was a blast even if it cut into time at my beloved Short Film Awards Party (which we raced to immediately afterward) and the opportunity to bowl the night away.
Anyway, that's the whole skinny on Sundance 2011. Doesn't sound like much in summation, but it was a LOT, trust me. And that was just my experience. There were literally hundreds of things going on and thousands of people I didn't see/experience. Fish around the web if you want to see some of the stuff I saw….and a lot of the stuff I didn't.
I drove up and back with the gang (except for Linda - who flew back early - and Jim, who flew back east), so got to discuss our various Sundance experiences and spend a bit of time in Vegas. We couldn't help but notice the similarities between Vegas and Park City during Sundance - fortunes made, dreams dashed, beautiful people, desperate people, lots of glitzy over-production, many hidden gems, talent utilized beautifully, lots of talent wasted. But where the fantasy of hitting it rich is stubbornly at the core of Vegas, cinematic greatness clings to the core of Sundance. When all the hoopla fades away, it's still - and will always be - about the movies, about the art of cinema. And that was on all of our minds as we cruised back home to L.A., inspired to take our own filmmaking lives to the next level.