“This is your guide to cinematic rebellion,” screeches the cover of the booklet accompanying the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. This theme of subversiveness has been grafted onto every last aspect of the festival this year, and echoes through the rhetoric of founder Robert Redford and the festival organisers. There is an evident eagerness to differentiate this Sundance from those past; to re-establish it, perhaps, at the forefront of North American film festivals – Toronto, Telluride, and South by Southwest in Austin, are all challenging its domination of the independent cinema circuit.
“I felt that we were sliding. We were flatlining and we needed to get fresh again. I felt the best thing we could do to be new and fresh was to get back to the way we were when we first started,” Redford said at the opening day press conference. He clearly hopes to return Sundance to the place from whence it came: a place where there were fewer stretch Hummers on Main Street blaring Lil’ Wayne, and more good, even seminal films (see Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Reservoir Dogs).
Certainly, there’s a renewed sense of excitement at Sundance, at which more than 100 feature films and 70 shorts from 40 countries will have run by the time it ends on Sunday. This fact can be largely attributed to the presence of John Cooper, who replaces Geoffrey Gilmore as festival director after 19 years (Cooper is no newbie himself: he has been working at the festival for 20 years). But how different is this year’s Sundance, really?
Well, there have been some substantive changes. New this year is the Next programme, a showcase for low-budget films. In embracing DIY filmmaking so specifically, Next (which includes eight features) hearkens back to when Sundance was known as an incubator for under-funded talent rather than, say, a place to give away your new premium denim line to Paris Hilton. The gifting suites, it should be noted, seem fewer and more understated than in years past; of those who typically use the festival to promote their parties and products, Redford said, “I hope they don’t come.”
Next is sponsored by YouTube, and the festival is collaborating closely with the website to present its films to a wider audience. As such, a number of shorts were made available for free on the Sundance website on opening day, while on YouTube three features from this year’s festival and two from 2009 will be available to rent (they will all remain up until Sunday). In a further push to disseminate what’s happening in this (usually) quiet little mountain town, Sundance is going on the road. This Thursday, eight filmmakers with entries in various competitions will travel to eight cities across the US to showcase their films. Even the opening night has been tweaked: instead of a tent-pole movie for the world’s press to focus their attention on, as in previous years, the festival got underway with various films across three screens. “My feeling [was] let’s get down to business,” said Cooper.
As much as Cooper might tub-thump the erection of a “lightning rod for independent cinema”, (as he described the 2010 festival on announcing its line-up in December), the fact remains that, on the programming front, things are very much the same. As usual, the festival’s documentary slate (standouts so far include public-school polemic Waiting For Superman, the shattering biography Bhutto, and Secrets of the Tribes, a study of the ethics of anthropology) far outclasses the dramatic division. A fiction feature or two will break out – last year’s hit was Precious, which ultimately garnered $44m (€31m) in its theatrical release – but why does commercial success necessarily have to be the measuring stick by which film festivals are judged? It would be a welcome – if paradigmatic – shift if Sundance were to be evaluated on the aesthetic quality of the films it shows, rather than how many seats its graduates fill at the local multiplex.
In revising the event, Redford et al certainly seem to be trying to achieve this, but it’s very much a work in progress. “SUNDANCE TWENTYTEN”, as organisers have dubbed it, might not offer the “renewed rebellion” promised in its (somewhat cringe-worthy) promotional materials, and the efforts to rebrand and streamline the event are definitely helped by necessity – this economy, after all, does not allow for the same peripheral glitz as at previous festivals. This year’s edition, however, does seem bolstered by a genuine desire to put the emphasis back exactly where it should be: on the films and the people who make them.