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Salt Lake City Weekly Sundance: 20 Years

Changing the course of U.S. cinema.

By Mary Dickson

JANUARY 20, 1998:  Barbara Bannon remembers the early days: The time at 4 o'clock in the morning when she, Sharon Swensen and Liz Welti-Montague went into the fields in back of Research Park in search of sunflowers. They thought fresh flowers would be a nice touch as centerpieces for the awards banquet. "We were out there in the dark picking all these sunflowers before the sun came out because they get wilted after that," recalls Bannon.

That was 1978, when a handful of Salt Lake City film lovers including Lory Smith, Bannon, Swensen, Wlti-Montague, Linda Moore, John Earle, Jim Ure and Sterling Van Wagenen founded what was then known as the Utah / U.S. Film Festival. Their festival was primarily a retrospective of American film built around the themes, "The City, the South and the West," with panel discussions featuring Cicely Tyson and Scott Momaday, among others.

It was Lory Smith who landed on the idea of bringing in a competition for independent filmmakers, those single creative forces working with passion and without traditional funding sources, to give voice to their stories. Smith spent most of his time that year on the phone encouraging filmmakers to participate in the fledgling festival.

"Boy, did I work hard to find those films," he recalls. "It wasn't easy. No one had heard of an independent film in those days." He ended up with 26 entries and selected eight films, which local film buffs filled the Trolley Corners theaters in Salt Lake City to watch.

"Our first idea was to elevate the level of film appreciation by searching for deeper meaning in movies and the way we look at them," recalls Smith, who until this year has helped program the festival. "After we reviewed the box office receipts, we found that those eight little films were the most popular in the program."

In its second year at theaters in the Elks Building on South Temple, the festival adopted a similar tactic, offering a retrospective of American film and hosting a small competition for independents. "Again, it was our little competition that did the most business," says Smith.


MOVING TO PARK CITY

The festival's first turning point came in 1981. At a small meeting in a downtown law office, film director Sydney Pollack, who was on the festival's advisory board, suggested moving the festival to Park City during winter. "He said Hollywood would beat down the door to come, that it would be the only festival in the world at a ski resort during ski season," recalls Smith.

More crucial, however, was the decision to shift the festival's focus from a retrospective to a showcase for independent films. "I said we could have a whole festival out of these kinds of films," says Smith. "That's when it all started in a lot of ways, when it really became the festival it still is today."

The festival gradually began attracting industry attention, making some inroads with Hollywood insiders who wanted to "come check out the little festival in Utah." Then, in 1985, Robert Redford's Sundance Institute got involved, lending the festival the added prestige and glamour associated with Redford's name. "There was immediately a heightened interest in terms of filmmakers wanting to participate, industry executives wanting to attend, and major newspaper outlets and magazines interesting in covering the festival," says Saundra Saperstein, the festival's marketing director for the past 17 years.

Since 1991, the festival has been known simply as the Sundance Film Festival, with full-time staffs in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. In less than two decades, a festival based in what was once a fairly obscure mining-turned-skiing community has gained an international reputation as the single most-important showcase of American independent cinema. The New York Times ranked it as one of the four most -important North American festivals with international significance, putting it in the company of the Toronto, Telluride and New York Film Festivals, while others regularly place it in the company of the Cannes, Venice and Berlin Film Festivals.

The festival has become a prestigious international cultural event, drawing 12,000 people to Park City each January, and last year alone bringing $17 million into the state. The festival has become the place for studios to find the hottest new talent; a place that brings together filmmakers, press, industry insiders, and film lovers from around the world; and attracts sponsors such as Mercedes Benz of North America, BOSS Hugo Boss and Entertainment Weekly.

Filmmakers, who clamor for the honor of having their works shown, submitted 870 entries for this year's dramatic and documentary competitions. Sundance has launched such critically acclaimed films as In the Company of Men, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Spitfire Grill, Big Night, The Celluloid Closet, When We Were Kings, The Brothers McMullen, Hoop Dreams, Brother's Keeper, Longtime Companion, Smooth Talk, Blood Simple and a host of others that have gone on to see theatrical release.

"It's been an extraordinary success story," says Smith of the festival he helped found. "Talk about the envy of the rest of the country. The people who were involved early on really had a lot of vision. They knew it had potential."


TOO MUCH SUCCESS

The Sundance Film Festival has become so big, so brilliant, so famous, in fact, that its very success has been lodged as a criticism against it. It has become too big, some say; too slick, too commercial, and even too mainstream. Such criticism has spawned not one, but two alternative film festivals — Slam Dance and the lesser Slum Dance. New York Times film critic Caryn James last year asked if, amidst the Saint Vitus dance that clogs the streets of Park City each January, Sundance had sold out to Hollywood? She concluded that "beneath the glitz, the festival has remained remarkably focused on small independent films."

In many ways, criticism that the festival has become a marketplace for studios to pick up hot new properties is ironic. Isn't that part of the point as well? To find a market? To get a film picked up for mass distribution? From the beginning, the festival's intent was to bring independently produced films to a wider audience. Says Smith, "I was convinced it was going to change the course of American filmmaking, and it has. I don't think filmmaking in America will ever be the same again. We've rounded the bend. Independent film has become part of the cultural jargon."

Smith credits the festival with introducing audiences to a different kind of film experience than what Hollywood was producing. "One of the key things the festival has done is develop audiences for these types of movies," says Smith. "Thank goodness there are enough courageous, driven and talented people out there to deliver the goods and that there are events like Sundance to bring them to everyone's attention. The biggest problem with Sundance is there aren't enough Sundances."

That the festival has helped launch so many films is commendable, although, as Smith admits, "a lot goes along with that, but it's a lot better to deal with success than to deal with failure."

Bannon, an early founder who still works with the festival as its publications editor, says Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape, which won the 1989 audience award and made a huge splash, was a watershed event that changed the character of the festival. "There has been an added growth push the last three or four years," she says, "but Sex, Lies and Videotape was when the festival really started to get noticed.

"What happened was that everyone was kind of knocked out. Steven's film went from Sundance to Cannes and won the Cannes Film Festival Palm D'Or, and everyone said, 'Wow! Who is this guy?' That's when the industry started to get interested in Sundance. They thought there must be other notable independent films there and other directors they could snap up."


ATTRACTING THE INDUSTRY

Before long, the festival reached a point where more industry people started showing up on the streets of Park City until it was a nightmare of agents, distributors and exhibitors wheeling and dealing and running around with their cell phones, becoming the fodder of many a satiric barb. It was in such a climate that Miramax' Harvey Weinstein made a public scene fighting over the rights to Shine, and that Spitfire Grill fetched more money than any independent film ever had.

"I hear criticism periodically that the festival has changed, that it doesn't do what it's supposed to do or used to do," says Saperstein. "I think it serves its original purpose even more than it used to. It provides a showplace for anybody in the industry who's interested in these films or in the talent who makes them.

"Every year the festival seems to add a new layer. Gradually, we've gone from studio executives to entertainment lawyers to managers of talent. We're giving filmmakers greater exposure than ever before. The festival gives them a chance to make a leap into the mainstream if that's what they choose, or to showcase their work if they choose to remain truly independent."

In many ways, the festival has taken on the proverbial "life of its own," which has become a real mixed bag. "I have mixed feelings about all that," says Bannon. "The festival has mixed feelings, too. As Redford always says, the festival's about the filmmakers. No matter what else has happened, the festival is still about and for filmmakers."

As she so astutely notes, to have films reach an audience, you have to attract people who can make it happen, which brings with it a certain amount of that commercial atmosphere. The plus side is that more independent films are reaching the marketplace. Over the last three or four years, for instance, many of the films that have played in Salt Lake City theaters originated at Sundance.

"The festival is hooking up filmmakers who need distribution with people who can distribute their films," says Bannon. "But it is at a cost. There is more commercialization, there can be a zoo-like atmosphere, it's more hectic, and no doubt it has lost some of the intimacy that gave it its charm in the early years. But you have to ask the filmmakers how they feel about that. That's an important thing to remember. We have to ask if it's allowing the filmmaker to achieve his or her goal of having their films go public so that they can afford to make more films. They'd say it's worth the hassle."

Smith agrees. "Despite all the complaints that it's not what it used to be, I take a huge amount of satisfaction in seeing the development and progress of the festival. I'm perfectly happy with the way it is. Utahns in particular should be really proud of this whole thing and all the talented people involved in making it happen. We should all be very proud that we have this very progressive event that has really changed the course of cinematic history."


GOING INDEPENDENT

In many ways, the success story of Sundance parallels what has been happening in the film industry, itself. When the festival began, few independent films were being made. The repertoire steadily increased, however, with the late 1980s seeing a proliferation of good independent films — a trend that reflected the decline of the Hollywood studios as directors wanted more autonomy and as more backers were willing to invest in independent films.
photo: Fred Hayes
Tower Theatre owner Greg Tanner.

Independent films now have become so well established and so lucrative that they dominated last year's Academy Awards, prompting Entertainment Weekly to headline an Oscar issue, "Hollywood vs. the Independents." Some of the biggest film successes of the recent year include an impressive number of independent films, many of which premiered at Sundance including the hit comedy The Full Monty and Shall We Dance?

Greg Tanner, owner of the Tower Theater, Salt Lake City's only independently owned-and-operated art-house cinema, has found that, as independent cinema has become an almost "mainstream phenomenon," he has a harder time getting the films he wants because the chains are now competing for product.

Tom Sobchack, a professor of film at the University of Utah, has noted, however, that these independents are not really so independent. They're safer, more mainstream and slicker. "The fact that Shine and Secrets and Lies played at a Sandy 10-plex says something," he said on KUED's Civic Dialogue.

They may not be all that experimental nor cutting edge, but the independents are where today's discerning moviegoers look to find personal stories and character-driven dramas of substance and heart. Some critics contend that because Hollywood is preoccupied with big-money event pictures, it is no longer willing or able to make smaller budget pictures that have become the realm of the independents.

"Look at the best-picture nominees [from 1996]," said Sobchack. "You have family drama, a murder mystery, and an epic war romance — those are the kinds of films Hollywood used to make but isn't anymore."

Says Smith, "Hollywood has put an even stronger focus on event and action pictures that will play to international audiences. That shouldn't be the only kind of cinema we have in our country. Instead of letting Hollywood determine what stories come out of our country, we need stories that percolate up from the people who know their communities, personal stories told in ways that couldn't be told elsewhere."

Since the festival's first year, when a handful of unknown independent films proved to be the most popular offerings, Smith has known that there was an audience for those stories. "I knew that if enough people could be encouraged to continue this kind of work and we could make some headway with audiences, we could do something. Here we are, 20 years later, and it worked. The only reason we were successful is that independent film was really meant to be."


TAKING CHANCES

If some say that the festival and independent films in general are becoming more mainstream, that may be nothing more than the natural course of public acceptance. Unfortunately, the word mainstream has a negative connotation, particularly in the world of art and film. When Sundance was accused a few years ago of being too mainstream, Robert Redford became concerned. "He didn't want that reputation," says Bannon. "So he told the festival to look for films willing to take chances."

To give films that "push the envelope of filmmaking" a home, the festival instituted a Frontier section, which this year features five experimental films guaranteed to be a "more rigorous experience than the opening night film," according to festival programmer John Cooper.

The Native Visions section, showcasing the important voices of Native American filmmakers, has been expanded this year. Smoke Signals, a feature by Native American filmmaker Chris Eyre and shot by Utahn Brian Capener, is included in the dramatic competition. "If you ask why we have a Native American section, this film is the answer," says Cooper.

For over-the-top offerings likely to amuse, surprise or shock the bleary-eyed, there's Park City After Midnight, with delicious fare like Orgasmo, by the wildly inventive Trey Parker, whose South Park animated TV series is already a cult hit. Orgasmo is about a Mormon missionary in L.A. who gets involved with the low-budget porn industry.

Three years ago, the festival created what it calls the American Spectrum, which tries to bring more obscure first-time filmmakers into the process. "There were only 32 slots for the competition, and with more than 800 entries we had too long a list of films we still wanted to show," says Cooper. "One thing that made us famous was that we were so selective, but as submissions kept growing, we felt we could afford to bring on some more American films." This year's American Spectrum presents 18 additional films that aren't part of the competition.

"Sundance has been criticized for becoming a vehicle of the Hollywood minor leagues," says Tanner, whose Tower Theater serves as a Salt Lake City venue for the festival. "I think Sundance has understood that there's a fine line between trying to develop new independent cinema and becoming beholden to Hollywood, which uses the independent film market as a way to test new directors and stars.

"I applaud the introduction of American spectrum series and some of their other innovati ve segments as a way to deal with that criticism. But when it comes down to it, there are far more films made than any festival can handle, and no matter who programs it, they're going to be criticized for their choices because it's all subjective and a matter of opinion."

To put more of a focus on the filmmakers and to more-smoothly handle the challenges of growth, the festival has instituted a number of changes this year. Most significant is cutting back from 127 feature films to 103, and from six to five screenings a day, giving festival-goers more time to get from one screening to another and filmmakers better opportunities for post-film discussion. A revamped catalogue gives each film its own page, complete with a photo and short biography of the filmmaker. "We're also providing an opportunity for them to be exposed to the press earlier on," says Saperstein. "The competition has been moved to the beginning of week so their faces will be recognizable and lead to more exposure."

Many past complaints have revolved around logistics, from crowded streets to the weather to the parking mess, prompting some to ask if the festival might be getting too big for Park City, whose own gains in popularity as a ski resort have compounded problems. "When you add to the skiers the horde of people descending on the town for the film festival, you're going to have logistical snafus," says Bannon. "Park City is a small town with limited parking and congested streets, and when it snows, it's worse. There are going to be some logistical problems no matter what we do. For a festival its size, however, Sundance remains an impressively well-run operation."

For people who don't want to brave the Park City crowds, Salt Lake City screenings continue to be an option as do screenings at Ogden's Egyptian Theatre and at the Sundance Ski Resort. To accommodate Salt Lake City audiences and make them more a part of the festival, organizers have added more venues, doubling screenings at the Trolley Square theaters, with two films a night, including 10 premieres. The Tower Theater, which shows independent films year round and serves as the festival's Salt Lake City anchor, will offer three screenings a day. The festival's Salt Lake City ticket headquarters has moved to Trolley Square on the second level outside the 600 South sky bridge.

Whether buying tickets for Park City or Salt Lake City, Saperstein and Smith have some advice: "Patience, planning and a flexible attitude are everything. Don't be discouraged if films are sold out," says Saperstein. "There are always seats available because people who have bought advance packages don't use all their tickets, and those seats are released 15 minutes before showtime. Buy a waiting-line ticket, have a cup of coffee and come back."

Adds Smith, "it's not like buying a ticket to a movie. That's part of the fun of a festival."


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