A Chill in the Air? Sundance 2009, Day One
Getting into the swing of a festival is always a challenge, especially when you’re contending with jet lag or, in the case of Sundance, a wee bit of altitude sickness. (Nearly everyone I ran into today was complaining of headache.) The weather is milder than usual (40 degrees, as opposed to the nine-below-zero readings in Chicago, where we were marooned for seven hours yesterday), and oddly, so is the energy at the Press and Filmmaker Lounge at the Marriott, where many reps and publicists are stationed. Last night, the festival opened with a stop-motion-animated feature, Mary and Max, and later in the week honcho Geoff Gilmore will screen archival prints of two groundbreaking indies that debuted at Sundance—Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street and Steven Soderbergh’s breakout hit sex, lies and videotape—to honor the fest’s 25th anniversary. But the feeling here, at least on Day One, seems far from festive.
The crowds on Main Street seem thinner than usual, and I was surprised to find the press office so calm and logy this morning. Is it the economic slump? Fallout from the Proposition 8 controversy in November, when some loudly called for a boycott of Sundance to hurt Mormon businesses in Utah? Perhaps. But the L.A. Weekly’s Scott Foundas has an alternate theory: indie-film fatigue. While I certainly take his point that a lot of bad “voodoo” has overshadowed the indie-film world of late, especially with the sudden shuttering of so many arthouse distributors, I’m not sure the future of Sundance and smaller-budget filmmaking is so bleak. And by what measure are “critics and audiences—indeed, the entire industry” feeling “undeniable fatigue” about “American indie films, and Sundance films in particular”? Citing box-office grosses and a single critics’ poll is specious at best when it comes to spectator psychology. More people than ever are finding and watching films online. Some save their dollars for better home-entertainment systems or simply stream what they want to see on their computer. Yes, meritorious festival films will have a harder time than ever finding a broad audience through the traditional route, whether they star Uma Thurman, Sam Rockwell, and 50 Cent or dramatize the hand-to-mouth lives and aspirations of Inuit hunters. These are lean times, and the hypertrophic bidding wars are, at least for now, a thing of the past. Only so many films can go the way of Hamlet 2 and Choke (two big losers last year purchased for outrageous sums) before buyers wise up and start taking into account whether the films they’re acquiring are actually any good. For filmmakers, new vistas are opening all the time, via craftier self-distribution stategies and thanks to advances in digital technology; the field is changing quickly and so are the rules of play. If the entire way we watch films changes the way we understand what a film is, then so will our notions of what a festival is (or can be) change, too. I don’t want to mourn the future before it arrives. Do you?
Coming up: Reviews of Tyson, You Won’t Miss Me, Moon, and Burma VJ