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What Does the Sundance Festival Tell Us About the Future of Film?

by Steve Ramos on February 20, 2013

The marquee of the Egyptian Theater in Park City (all photos by the author of Hyperallergic)

The marquee of the Egyptian Theater in Park City (all photos by the author of Hyperallergic)

The deal making begins weeks before the celebrities touch down in Park City, Utah, a pop-up center of the universe for the culture industry during the ten-day run of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Open Road Films buys the Steve Jobs biopic jOBS, starring Ashton Kutcher as the Apple co-founder, long before audiences clap, yawn, or both at its Sundance Closing Weekend premiere. Other movies including Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey, and No, featuring Gael García Bernal, also arrive with deals intact. The pre-fest deals, as well as decisions by filmmakers from former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl (Sound City) to Shane Carruth (Upstream Color) to take on a DIY release model, lead to an inevitable question: with the ability to build communities of fans and supporters 24/7 on digital platforms, are the time, energy, and money spent getting in and getting to Sundance still necessary?

Yet the Sundance Festival continues to grow, with 119 feature-length films representing 32 countries and approximately 40,000 attendees coming to town for the 2013 edition. One thing is clear, according to Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford and his team: Sundance is busting Park City at the seams.

“There’s no more room to grow,” John Cooper, director of the festival, says, speaking at Main Street’s Sundance House on the festival’s opening day. “There just isn’t.”

For ten colorful days, life is turned upside down in Park City, a small ski-resort town nestled in the mountains outside Salt Lake City. The uptick of Sundance 2013 is one of the more vibrant marketplaces in recent memory, with film industry executives buying all sorts of movies, including the Joseph Gordon-Levitt feature directing debut Don Jon’s Addiction and Lovelace, starring Amanda Seyfried as Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, at a level that makes one believe the economy is truly recovering, at least in the world of cultural commerce.

A Park City tradition: posters along every open inch of Main Street

A Park City tradition: posters along every open inch of Main Street

But the deal making, along with the brand-sponsored interview suites and lounges — that’s the business side of Sundance.

On the creative landscape, it’s not about the place as much anymore, despite all the energy, time, and money spent by filmmakers like Fire in the Blood director Dylan Mohan Gray, who travels from Mumbai in order to present his documentary about the AIDS crisis in Africa and the blockade of low-cost antiretroviral drugs by drug companies.

“I often think about that, all the energy and resources being spent to come here from Mumbai,” Gray tells us, speaking at the end of the festival. “One of my producers is currently stuck at an airport trying to get here. Now, I wanted to come, and I can tell you the film is getting lots of attention back home for premiering here at Sundance. But I do think about the future and the role film festivals will play.”

Here are five trends that sparked to life at Sundance. It will be interesting to see how they change the cultural landscape for the rest of 2013.

1. Holistic crowd funding, from startup production costs to community building to the DIY release of the film

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, co-directors of Indie Game: The Movie, an intimate look at the high-pressure world of independent game developers, return to Park City as panel participants after having helped usher in the Kickstarter generation of crowd funding and DIY distribution with their debut documentary.

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, co-directors of "Indie Game: The Movie"

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, co-directors of “Indie Game: The Movie”

Over tacos and PBRs at a local snowboarder hangout, Pajot and Swirsky joke about how their crowdfunding model seemed so alternative last year; now, in a brief 12 months, it has quickly become a strong option — if not the indie biz model of choice — for 2013 Sundance filmmakers like Jehane Noujaim and her team for the Egyptian democratic revolution doc The Square and 99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, a crowd-based, cinematic response to the Occupy Movement led by directors Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read, and Nina Krstic.

More importantly, crowd funding is no longer relegated to the beginning, funding phase of projects. It’s holistic now, providing a method for raising funds as well as building brand awareness and the community support necessary for a successful DIY release, if that’s what an artist wants.

“It seems so long ago that we were last here at Sundance,” Pajot says, laughing. “I used to think about self-distribution as just me and Jaime touring with our film, but now I see us as part of a major movement.”

2. Transformation of celebrity spokespeople into interactive brand ambassadors

Celebrities still stop traffic and publicity done Sundance style continues to be as wild as ever. Nicole Kidman comes to Park City to promote her film, the thriller Stoker, and documentary veteran Greg Barker gets caught in the tumult when he and his Manhunt crew, a trio of former CIA officers, are overwhelmed by the celebrity actress, her entourage, and the paparazzi and locals hoping for a photo.

Moving past the throngs of fans outside the Eccles Theatre, whether they’re lining up for Kidman or Kutcher or Gordon-Levitt, it all feels like a final gasp of classic red carpet publicity in an industry that’s becoming more and more about community building in a digital space.

Much of Sundance’s celebrity pizazz seems as familiar and quaint as interviews at a corporate-branded lodge in Deer Valley. And there are hints at the digital reinvention of celebrities into something more than simple famous faces.

The HP Lounge, one of many Sundance branded spaces along Main Street

The HP Lounge, one of many Sundance branded spaces along Main Street

Start-ups like Wishclouds come to Park City to Beta test their next-generation digital retail site that takes celebrity sharing to new levels of interactivity via personal lifestyle tips and picks. Rally.org, the San Francisco–based, crowd-sourced fundraising start-up, comes to Park City to transform classic “branding houses” and their mountains of “swag” into a pipeline for their “Cause Economy,”  in which celebrities and consumer brands can collaborate for charitable causes.

Suddenly, all the Main Street hubbub and its rooftop bars feel small by comparison.

3. Diversity of storytellers and storytelling, with more women at the forefront

At Park City, the goal is to keep the spotlight on those bold filmmakers responsible for the type of challenging dramas that are a Sundance trademark, as well as a fixture at the alternative Slamdance Festival, running parallel at its intimate locale at the top of Main Street. Actor/director/producer James Franco receives lots of attention for his boundary-pushing movies Kink, a documentary about a San Francisco–based BDSM porn website, and Interior. Leather Bar., an imagining of the cut scenes from the 1980 Al Pacino film Cruising, but festival spotlight and coverage quickly shift to the welcome fact that the number of female directors match their male peers in the 16-film US Documentary Competition category, a positive milestone for an industry dominated by men for too long.

Writer/director Liz W. Garcia

Writer/director Liz W. Garcia

“I’m excited to be here with so many talented female filmmakers, especially Naomi Foner, who’s one of my idols,” says Liz W. Garcia, writer/director of The Lifeguard, starring Kristen Bell as an out-of-work journalist who returns to her Connecticut suburb to work as a lifeguard. “But I’m more excited thinking about a future Sundance when a large number of female directors will seem ordinary and no longer a big news story.”

Mainstream tales like Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight, featuring Kathryn Hahn as an LA wife and mother who befriends a stripper named McKenna (played by Juno Temple), and actor/filmmaker Cherien Dabis’s Jordan-set marriage drama May in Summer sparkle brighter thanks to their sensitive storytelling.

Writer/director Nadia Szold, at Slamdance with her searing drama Joy de V, the story of a Long Island con artist (Evan Louison) whose life turns upside down when his pregnant wife Joy goes missing, helps remind Park City audiences that a female community of filmmakers can offer stories and techniques every bit as diverse as what’s on the opposite side of the gender fence.

“I’m committed to making art and making movies and remaining as independent as possible,” Szold tells us, hanging out at the Sundance Channel suite with her co-star Louison. Szold says she pushed herself away from the editing table and completing her next feature to come to Park City and promote Joy de V. Since she’s at Slamdance, she may not have the chance to meet all of her Sundance peers face-to-face, but rest assured, she’s making an artistic contribution to the female filmmaker community that’s every bit as strong.

4. Merging of digital art and feature-length film into a new, transmedia experience and something more sustainable

As Sundance continues to champion digital technologies and the convergence of cinema with transmedia art installations, Park City’s shuttered Anderson’s Lumberyard, a set of sprawling warehouses transformed into the exhibition space New Frontier 13, becomes more and more important to the festival. On an opening-weekend media day, Australian artist Lynette Wallworth guides visitors to her 10-seat planetarium installation “Coral: Rekindling Venus,” which is touring multiple sites across the US. Joanie Lemercier, a founding member of the visual group AntiVJ, installs “Eyjafjallajokull,” a 3D audiovisual mapping based on the 2010 Icelandic volcanic eruption, and another AntiVJ team member, Yannick Jacquet, joins Mandril and Thomas Vaquié to mix painting and projected light for “Cityscape 2095,” a futuristic, 3D cityscape.

Rapper and New Frontier artist Yung Jake

Rapper and New Frontier artist Yung Jake

While there’s also a strong film contingent featuring Wrong Cops, a new work by Quentin Dupieux, the majority of the New Frontier section takes place away from festival cinemas and in the exhibition space. In fact, thanks to Rap artist Yung Jake, New Frontier leaves behind its Park City footprint and engages its audience digitally via an augmented-reality app that goes beyond the mind-bending work of his music videos like “Max Moiyer.”

“I’m going to perform here at Sundance, but I also want the work to reach beyond Sundance,” Jake says, working busily on his laptop while sitting on the New Frontier floor.

5. The departure from place-based entertainments like film festivals — a creative shift in the digital landscape

A crisscross of bitter cold nights and unseasonably warm days leads to bouts of the infamous Sundance flu. Sundance is a ten-day marathon that tests one’s patience and stamina. It doesn’t need to be. It can become something permanent, 24/7, and more fluid.

For years, Sundance has been the home for challenging films willing to test the boundaries of independent cinema. Now, it’s time for that home to take place in a digital landscape.

Perhaps a traditional Sundance festival will continue as a more intimate place for past Sundance heroes like Drake Doremus, whose love story Like Crazy won the 2011 Grand Jury Prize, to return and celebrate new work, this time with his Like Crazy actress, Felicity Jones, starring in the Bergman-like melodrama Breathe In. But multiplatform release patterns and production and marketing models are quickly changing, and it’s hard to see Sundance remaining unchanged in such an evolving industry. Really, 29 years from now, it has to be different.

Still, by the closing weekend, like every closing weekend, breakout dreams happen at Sundance. It’s the one hope that keeps the festival’s mythology going and arguably makes Park City a beacon every year.

The fairy tale story of Sundance 2013 is "Fruitvale" director Ryan Coogler.

The fairy tale story of Sundance 2013 is “Fruitvale” director Ryan Coogler.

This year, director Ryan Coogler’s true life drama Fruitvale is the fairy-tale story, the winner of this year’s Dramatic Audience Award and Jury Prize. Coogler’s film about Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a 22-year-old African American man shot by BART transit police at the Fruitvale station on New Year’s Day 2009, should be an art-house hit when the Weinstein Co. opens it in theaters later this year.

Thanks to Sundance, Coogler’s life has changed; now Sundance itself has to change, too.

The 2013 Sundance Film Festival took place January 17–27 in Park City, Utah.

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