Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sundance: preview

Park City, Utah is a ski resort. For most of the year, it’s a sleepy imitation of Aspen, Colorado: wonderful scenery, decent slopes and almost kitschy knickknack shops. If you’re not into skiing, it’s nothing particularly special.

But for one week of the year it becomes the movie capital of North America as half of Hollywood’s movers and shakers (not to mention zillions of journalists, poseurs, hangers-on and assorted fans and buffs) descend upon this little town for the annual film festival festival.

Park City hosts the Ultra-prestigious Sundance Film Festival, the recently respectable Slamdance counterfestival, the Slamdunk counter-counter festival, Undance [which was in a hotel room] Tromadance, which is basically a publicity stunt for Troma films, ROADance, which may or may not be there for it’s fifth season, and Sleazedance[which shows porno out of a minivan],

Slumdance, the big counter-counter festival, back in the ‘90s was canceled. It not only suffered from a dearth of submissions but no one would let the guys who ran the darn thing any space.

It seems they left their last venue trashed.

But that’s okay. In fact, there were more film festivals per square foot in Park City, Utah this year than anyplace else in history.

Aside from the snow and freezing temperatures, Park City in the last week of January a cinemaphile’s wet dream. But it wasn’t always so..

The United States Film Festival was a creation of the Utah film commission, and began its illustrious career in 1978. It was a complete flop. The repertoire was primarily, as former festival program director Lory Smith puts it in his book Party in a Box: "... to show old movies and have famous people talk about them." To be frank, nobody outside of Utah really wanted to go all the way to Salt Lake City, where prohibition of sorts was still in effect, just to see that. However, the six independent films shown did get relatively large audiences. The first Utah/US Film festival wound up 40 grand in the hole.

The next year was even worse, although Robert Redford, the famous movie star and Utah resident, was able to get some major Hollywood muscle to show up at the ’79 fest, which took place in late spring, but while it did far better than the first one, it was still a financial disaster.

Something had to be done. Sydney Pollack, whom Redford had recruited for the U/USFF board of directors, made an entirely unserious suggestion: "You ought to move the festival to Park City and set it in the wintertime." It would be, he said "... the only film festival in the world held in a ski resort during ski season, and Hollywood would beat down the door to attend."

The board decided to give this silly idea a try, and the 1980 festival was cancelled and the ’81 festival brought up four months and moved to Park City.

The rest is history.

In 1979 Redford and many of the U/UFF staff got together to form what would become the Sundance Institute, named after his most famous role. (“Imagine,” he’s reported to have said, “If I’d gotten the part of Butch Cassidy”). Redford’s institute was a major player in the programming for the U/UFF, and they and the Utah began to squabble. So in 1985, the commission basically forced ownership of the U/USFF on Redford and his institute. It got bigger. The focus on oldies was dropped, (although retrospectives continue to this day) video and shorts competitions added and some of the winners, like Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 "Sex, Lies and Videotape" became commercial hits as well.

The festival was making money, the Institute had an event to plan around and give structure to many of the organizations many other projects. The transition was complete in 1991, when the U/USFF changed its name to The Sundance Film festival.

The number of independent films went from six in 1978 to almost a hundred in 1990, the last year under it’s original name. It’s grown exponentially pretty much ever since.

Getting stuff into Sundance got harder and harder as the festival got bigger, and in 1994 would-be auteurs Shane Kuhn, Dan Mirvish and Jon Fitzgerald all had their films rejected, so in revenge they decided to have their own counter-festival, called Slamdance, at the same time in SLC. On the second day of the first festival, to get publicity and just tick Redford off, they moved to Park City.

They were wildly successful on both counts, and have remained there ever since. This of course inspired others.

The Slumdance Experience, (Park City officials refused to let them call themselves a festival) was nearly as big as Slamdance in ‘97, but, as was mentioned before, didn’t come back the next year, NO Dance sponsored by Forest Whitaker, lasted at least six years before folding sometime in ’03. Last year there were SchmoozeDance, for Jewish-themed films, and X-dance for sports junkies. This year…who knows?

All we know for certain is that with the exception of Slamdance, Sundance is going to overwhelm everything for a period of ten days.

The Sundance Film Festival is divided into several competitions:

Independent Feature Film Competition

This is limited to sixteen films and every single agent and distributer in Hollywood are going to be looking at these extremely closely. There’s Oscar® gold to be found here, and has been for years.

American Spectrum

Those films that didn’t qualify for the comptetition, but the judges thought should be seen are part of this group. The ticket holders are given a ballot and are encouraged to vote.

Experimental films, weird, artistic stuff by people who are generally unknown are put in this category. Think Matthew Barney.

World Cinema
Since everything NOT made by Hollywood is considered “independent,” and lots of foreign films are entered every year, this is going to be the second year that there’s going to be an official competition. A number of them have already been submitted for this year’s Oscars®.

Native Forum

This is for American Indians, Eskimos and the like to show off their cinematic skills. Most of these films will never be seen again.

Park City at Midnight

These are sometimes the best films of the festival. Small films that scare the bejeezuz out of you, like the Blair Witch Project. The cops are on the lookout for drunks and stoners when these are over.


These are NOT independent films, they’re just pretending to be. They’re usually by alumnus of the festival and there’s really nothing wrong with that. They’re the ones that usually get the biggest crowds, like the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski and the like.


This is sort of like “American Idol” the constestants can get their stuff on the Sundance channel, and with any luck they can make a genuine Hollywood feature. Sometimes these are better than the features.

From the Sundance Collection

After twenty-six years, the festival can now screen it’s OWN oldies.

Special Screenings

Whatever doesn’t fit in any of the above categories, and that the judges think are really interesting are put here.

There are screening rooms all over town and a free shuttle to get there. Remember to wear warm clothing!!!!

SLAMDANCE has Twenty feature films in competition this year and a hundred over all. What it does is take over the Treasure Island lodge in the center of town and has a kind of ten day long party. It’s very informal and if one can’t get into a Sundance screening this is a great place to hang out.

As to the counter-counter festivals, there’s really no information at this moment.

No comments: