The Slip-Sliding of Sundance

January 17, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Every year, I get at least a dozen e-mails asking if I'll be attending Sundance. Some are from people hoping to meet me; others are from readers wondering if I'll be posting updates. It has been seven years since I have been to Park City and I don't plan to return. During the four consecutive years I attended the festival, I absorbed enough to last a lifetime. Plus, in the intervening years, the culture has changed. Sundance was once one of the premiere festivals in the world for debuting and highlighting independent film. However, that aspect of cinema, which was thriving in the '90s, is struggling. Most so-called successful indie films have some kind of studio backing so it's questionable whether they truly deserve the label. True indies, while not dead, are a rare breed.

At its height, which would have been during the mid-to-late 1990s, Sundance was a go-to destination, visited by critics and film lovers from across North America. Had blogs existed then, they would have been abuzz with Sundance news the likes of which would put today's daily commentaries to shame. It was a wheeling-dealing marketplace where films were overpaid for and careers (theoretically) made. Did it matter that even the most expensive sales rarely got more than a token theatrical release? Remember Happy Texas? No? Point made. It's tough to come up with more than a handful of genuine Sundance successes beyond sex, lies and videotape, which put Sundance on the map. People like to point to Memento, but while it's true that the film hogged the spotlight at Sundance in 2001, it actually premiered the year before at Toronto. And a lot of the brightest lights at Sundance arrive already signed, sealed, and delivered. This isn't unusual for film festivals, but it's hard to call something a "discovery" when a studio already has it on their release schedule.

Was Sundance ever a great festival? Probably not. But, during its best years, it was alive and electric. There was so much going on that sleep was out of the question. Satellite film festivals sprung up all around town, some held in converted buses - from the most famous, "Slamdance," to the most infamous, "Lapdance." Looking back on the late '90s at Sundance, I have to admit that the quality of movies even then was more variable than at Toronto. One of the reasons I stopped going is because the Sundance offerings didn't seem special anymore. For me, Utah is a long way to go for such a limited payoff. (Especially in the post-9/11 world where air travel has been turned from an inconvenience to a nightmare. I now drive to Toronto for that reason.)

Since around 2002, Sundance has gradually lost its luster. Its prominence has been in decline. Deals are no longer as widely circulated nor are the payouts as eye-popping. Fewer movies are sold each year. The acrimonious Miramax divorce took away a major Sundance player. (And the financially strapped The Weinstein Company doesn't have much cash to throw around.) Now, it's a marketplace film festival without much of a market. Gradually, Sundance is returning to its more modest regional routes. Few East Coast critics attend any more; it's not important enough. So it becomes the roaming ground of the West Coast reviewers, pundits, and bloggers. Sundance is a more attractive destination if you live close by - and if you like cold weather.

January is a popular month for film festivals. The week after New Year's Day, Palm Springs hosts a festival in which all of the would-be Best Foreign Film nominees are shown - not just the finalists but every movie submitted by every country. A few weeks later, Santa Barbara rolls out the stars and the Hollywood fare. Both of these festivals occur in mild, vacation-type destinations. The only reason to go to Park City aside from film viewing is if you ski. I get the impression that most critics are not skiiers. (Not being a cold weather person, I believe the majority of winter activities - snow shoveling excepted, which I find to be bracing - should be done indoors.) I'm sure many Sundance attendees love sloshing through the slush on their way to the bus stop that will eventually get them to their next film. Unless you're an A-list critic, transportation always has to be factored into any decision.

Then there are the economics of the trip. The closer you are to Sundance Central (which, since 1998, has been the Eccles Auditorium), the more you pay for a night's lodging. Affordability is not a characteristic of the accommodations. The cheapest way to "do" Sundance is to rent a four-wheel drive and stay in Salt Lake City. That requires a 90-minute round-trip each day but it saves about $2000 for a one-week trip. More than a fair tradeoff, plus there are Sundance screenings in Salt Lake City.

As Sundance's fortunes have fallen, other film festivals have risen. One of the hottest, hippest festivals in North America is Austin's South by Southwest, which grows more notorious and interesting each year. Seattle is arguably the best local festival in the United States, although there are others who would argue that statement. Telluride is known for its quality and exclusivity (no free press admittance, no prior revelation of the schedule). Then there's Toronto, which increases its visibility and importance every year. My personal synergy with that festival is hard to dispute. Take a look at my 2008 Top 10 List. Of the films on there, eight played at Toronto in either 2006 or 2007. None played at Sundance.

Some of the inherent weakness in Sundance's lineup comes from the time of year when it's held. There's not a lot of good stuff floating around in January, even on the festival circuit. Award fatigue has set in. The best of Sundance often looks very ordinary when set against the backdrop of a year's worth of motion pictures. The obvious solution would be to move the date of the festival (right after Cannes or right after Toronto are two prime slots) but Sundance has resisted that idea (among dozens of other suggestions to make it more "friendly"). It's doubtful that Sundance will ever fully lose its allure or its interest among fans of indie film, but those who hope for a return to the glory days of the 1990s may have a very, very long wait in the snow, ice, and cold.