2000 Sundance Film Festival Update #1: "Looking Back, Looking Ahead - An Overview of Sorts"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 21, 2000

Originally, I was going to call this piece "Sour Grapes," but, at the last moment, I had a change in heart and decided to be a little more optimistic about the 2000 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. After all, I have all my tickets, so my schedule is locked in, I'll only be missing one screening that I wanted to see, and the weather in frigid, snowbound New Jersey is a lot worse than it is in relatively balmy Park City. Besides, I can deal with all the annoying, irritating, impolite people with cell phones - I'm from the Northeast. So Sundance can't be all that bad, can it? (Still, my advice to anyone who doesn't have to go: don't.)

Because it has grown up, Sundance isn't as magical as it once was. In fact, it has even moved out of the gawky adolescent stage. The festival now runs like a reasonably well-oiled machine, and its years of finding comfortable niches for experimental offerings are past. For the edgier, less mainstream fare, there are upstart offsprings like "Slam Dance" and "No Dance". A quick perusal of this year's program reveals that a surprising number of films are coming to Sundance with distributors, meaning that there probably won't be as much financial news emerging from Park City during the next fortnight. Also, there are more return filmmakers than usual.

Last year, the biggest acquisition was The Blair Witch Project, which was not in the much-ballyhooed Dramatic Competition category (it was a "Park City at Midnight" selection). Artisan Entertainment snapped it up and it went on to smash box office records. While it remains to be seen whether Sundance 2000 has its own version of Blair Witch, the upswing of more traditional films clogging the programming schedule makes it doubtful.

It's probably a worthwhile endeavor to look back at last year's "big" films and see how they fared once the hoopla of Sundance was behind them. The 1999 Opening Night film, Cookie's Fortune (from director Robert Altman) was a modest commercial success, but by no means was it considered a box office hit. My #1 movie for 1999, Tim Roth's The War Zone, had its world premiere at Sundance, but poor handling and an erratic distribution schedule have prevented most potential viewers from seeing it at a normal venue. Doug Liman's Go, which was one of the hottest tickets of the festival, tanked when it went into wide release.

Two of the most difficult films to get into last year were the documentaries American Pimp and Sex: The Annabel Chong Story. Even though the word at the festival was that they were highly overrated, that didn't stop prospective viewers from standing in line for up to eight hours to get into a screening. (After all, sex sells.) After Park City, however, neither movie has endured much fanfare. Frankly, I have no idea what happened to American Pimp -- it may have gone direct to cable. Sex is still awaiting a very limited United States distribution.

The dramatic competition had several darlings. Three Seasons won the top prize, but it came in with a distributor, so there was no bidding war. In general release, it was far from a runaway hit. The biggest pick-up of the festival was Happy, Texas, which eventually went to Miramax. However, despite playing to packed houses and receiving warm ovations in Park City, the movie took a nosedive outside of Sundance. If the filmmakers had a deal that included a percentage of the net profits (as was widely reported), they must have been sorely disappointed by Miramax's handling of the once-hot property. Another winner at the 1999 edition was Run, Lola, Run, which had a successful theatrical run - but that wasn't a Sundance discovery. It came to Park City four months after premiering in Toronto.

The message in all of this is that movies that look hot in Park City often freeze when exposed to real-world conditions, and that Sundance's impact on the movie industry in general is overrated. Yes, the festival is important, but it's not as crucial as its hucksters would have the public believe. Far more successes emerge from Cannes and Toronto. Nevertheless, when it comes to American independent films, Sundance is still where most first-time directors want to have their productions screened (at 1200, this year's submission count reached an all-time high).

So what about this year? To begin with, attendance will probably be down a little. It dipped last year from the all-time high in 1998, and there's nothing on the roster that would warrant an increase in 2000. Frankly, it's a pretty dismal schedule, with very little to get excited about. When filling out my schedule, there were a distressing number of slots when I was trying to pick the least unappealing offering instead of the most appealing.

The most potential - both in terms of eventual box office clout and general quality - probably lies in the Premieres category (a title that is somewhat misleading, since at least one of these movies, The Big Kahuna, has played elsewhere). Stanley Tucci, the director of The Impostors and Big Night is bringing Joe Gould's Secret to Park City. American Psycho, directed by Mary Harron and based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, has already generated some controversy by being slapped with the MPAA's "NC-17" rating (for sex, not violence). Hamlet takes the play and transposes it (with Shakespeare's dialogue intact) to modern-day New York. Trixie, directed by Alan Rudolph, features a superlative cast (Emily Watson, Nick Nolte, Nathan Lane), but, given Rudolph's variable quality as a director, could turn out to be the festival's biggest bust. Sophia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides is generating a fair amount of positive advance buzz. And the presence of heartthrob Ben Affleck will give a boost to Boiler Room.

This year's Dramatic Competition looks feeble. Possible standouts include Committed (directed by Manny and Lo's Lisa Krueger and starring Heather Graham), Crime and Punishment in Suburbia (which moves Dostoevsky's classic to contemporary California, but does not leave the Russian novelist's dialogue intact), and Other Voices (which, if nothing else, has a solid cast: Stockard Channing, Peter Gallagher, Campbell Scott). Supposedly, the Documentary Competition is exceptionally strong this year. However, considering how unimpressed I have been by documentary entries in past years, I don't plan to see any.

Sundance features other categories, like "American Spectrum" and "World Cinema", but it's rare that anything earthshaking emerges from these. I'll sample a few titles, but, aside from a few repeats from Toronto, there's more "filler" here than anything else.

So, as the festival gets underway, it seems like every journalist and publicist in the world is converging on Park City. After all, Sundance has become more of a media event or a trade show than a traditional film festival. Hopefully, though, somewhere, buried beneath all the snow and the hype, a few gems are waiting to be discovered. If not, I may stay home next year (although I say that every year, and end up going anyway).

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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