Raining on the Sundance Parade

January 24, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

Negativity Alert!!!

I recently read an article that touted the Sundance Film Festival (underway as I write this) as one of the world's three most important film festivals. This categorization flabbergasts me. Since when did the bigger-than-it-should-be January unspooling of unreleased films in Park City turn deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Cannes and Toronto? Without giving it more than a moment's serious thought, I can name five festivals more deserving of that honor than Sundance (Venice, Berlin, Miami, Seattle, Karlovy Vary). In point of fact, Sundance is far more hype than substance. If it ever was different, it hasn't been thus for over a decade. This isn't just the opinion of someone looking on from a distance. Read my Sundance commentaries from 1998-2001 and you'll discover that I wasn't all that happy while in attendance.

Great festivals can be defined in one of two ways: a place in which memorable movies await discovery behind every closed door to every darkened auditorium or a place in which great acquisitions can be made. Let me consider Sundance under the microscope of those criteria. (It doesn't take much thought to discern that Cannes and Toronto fit both.)

When it comes to uncovering great movies, Sundance is a hit-and-miss affair, with far too many misses. Some years are better than others. I have been to Sundances past in which great movies were few and far between, and many of the festival's best bets previously played in Toronto. Sundance focuses primarily on two areas: bland commercial fare to headline evening Eccles screenings and obscure indie movies hoping for a breakout. If there are discoveries, they're likely to be found in the latter category, but you might as easily end up catching a chill enduring something unwatchable as viewing the next great Miramax art house hit. Other Sundance categories, such as World Cinema, are populated primarily by films that have generated buzz at other festivals. Over the years, there have been a number of Sundance standouts, including The War Zone, The Blair Witch Project, Donnie Darko and In the Bedroom. (Sex, Lies and Videotape put Sundance on the map, but that's going back a long time.) Oddly, what is often considered one of Sundance's greatest successes, Memento, was actually a Toronto holdover. You can find good stuff at Sundance, but it can be harder than going on a treasure hunt. (Getting last minute tickets is an experience usually defined by long waits in line and occasional sleep deprivation.)

Over the years, Sundance has become known as a movie meat market, but the days of wine and roses are over. Rights are still being bought and sold at the festival, but the dollar amounts are down, as are the performance expectations. Consider how many of the "hot" Sundance properties of years gone by have become hits (even by art-house standards). The second year I attended Sundance (1999), the hot property was a little comedy called Happy, Texas. A bidding war erupted. It became the "must see" movie of the festival. Miramax trampled the competition paying what was described as an "obscene" amount for the film. What became of it? Despite having shelled out all that money, Miramax buried it: a limited release followed by a trip to video store back shelves. More often than not, this is the fate of Sundance hits. They don't play well outside of the film festival's closed system. Last year's closing night movie, Alpha Dog, just made it to theaters. It bombed and will soon be available through Netflix.

The weather is another factor in exacerbating grumpiness. Most big-time festivals are smart enough to unveil their schedules during times of hospitable climate. (Toronto was rainy and chilly last year, but that's not usually the case.) Admittedly, there are some people who like struggling through snow banks, navigating icy sidewalks, and ending up knee-deep in slush. When you put your boot into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's footprint, you'll know what to do... It has been said that the snow storms, ice storms, and occasional bursts of cold drizzle add "color" to the festival. The only "color" I see is white. Every year I attended Sundance (except for one unusually warm one), I was convinced I was going to come down with pneumonia.

Taken for what it is - a nice little festival that highlights American independent films - Sundance does the best job it can under less-than-ideal circumstances. (The time of year and the limitations of the venues are both obstacles.) Making it out to be more than it is leads to heightened expectations that Sundance cannot fulfill. It is a second-rate festival not a world class one. Its place is nestled between the Big Boys and the Locals. Unless you live in Salt Lake City or the surrounding environs, there's no compelling reason to attend this festival (unless you're a rich ski buff who can combine passions). The festival's marketing arm has turned a pleasant cinematic excursion into a major fraud.