What Happens in Park City Stays in Park City

January 29, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

It has taken several years away from the Sundance Film Festival to give me a perspective that I didn't have when I was attending annually. After four consecutive, frustrating Januarys spent in Park City, I stopped going after air travel became onerous in the wake of 9/11. Part of my problem with the festival resulted from the plane trips. I hate getting on airplanes with an unholy passion. (It's not a fear of flying - there's no nervousness involved - it's a hatred of flying.) Ultimately, I decided that what I was getting out of Sundance wasn't worth what I had to go through to get there and back.

Every year, Sundance ends up being more hype than substance. It has been that way for more than a decade. Yet things look different from the outside than from within. To a degree, this is true of every film festival, but it's more the case with Sundance than the others I have attended. No North American film festival is built on a less sturdy foundation than Sundance.

When I frequented Sundance, I can recall hurrying from one location to another, desperate to see the day's "hot" film because no self-respecting critic could leave the festival without writing about it. Bidding wars would erupt over movies, and it became necessary to cram them into one's schedule. In the end, most of these films disappeared into the ether. They didn't show up in my local multiplex, or even in my not-so-local art house. A few years later, they might creep silently onto a limited release DVD. And a lot of those "hot" films turned out to be overhyped turds.

Consider the case of Mark Illsley's Happy Texas (not a turd - I liked it), which sparked a ferocious bidding war at the 1999 festival. This was the hot ticket that year, a movie that scalpers were having a field day with. The film was bought for an obscene amount of money by Miramax films. Illsley was the toast of Sundance. But when the movie eventually made its way into theaters, it stumbled badly, grossing less than $2 million over its entire run (less than Miramax paid for the rights), meaning that almost no one who didn't attend Sundance 1999 has ever heard of the movie.

This happens regularly at Sundance. "Toasts of the festival" become forgotten or ignored. Many times, it's because there are flaws that festival-goers, trapped within their ten-day microcosm, do not notice. There is a tendency within the atmosphere of a festival to overpraise certain movies (I have been guilty of this). A lot of "can't miss" films end up missing. This includes titles that spark bidding wars. Distributors overeager not to come home empty-handed pay too much for a movie with limited theatrical prospects, then rue the loss of money at a later date. Such pictures are often dumped with little fanfare into art houses, then pulled when they flop. (This is what happened with Happy Texas, which turned Sundance's jubilant Illsley into a disillusioned man.)

Occasionally, a movie with strong buzz at Sundance emerges to have mainstream success. Memento, the hottest movie at the 2001 festival, is a good example (although, like one of this year's most-talked about entries, Thank You for Smoking, it premiered at the previous year's Toronto festival). 2005's March of the Penguins went on to be an unexpectedly big success. But these are exceptions.

Today is the last day of the Sundance Film Festival. The award winners were announced yesterday. Most of these have, or will soon have, distibutors. But whether those films are heard from again in cities other than New York and Los Angeles is an uncertain prospect. Sundance likes to promote itself as a place where greate movies are discovered. But such productions, whether great or merely overhyped, are often quickly forgotten. This underlines a simple truth of the movie business as it exists today: what's big at a festival like Sundance is often small in the real world.