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Sunday, May 13, 2007

MYTHS OF SUNDANCE #6

MYTH #6: SUNDANCE TRIED TO CREATE BIDDING WARS TO SHAPE A FILM AESTHETIC MORE MALIABLE TO THE HOLLYWOOD INDUSTRY

What many people think of today, when they imagine Sundance in January, are rented 4-wheel drive SUVs with darkened windows doubled parked on Main street; cell phones glued to the ears of studio execs running between screenings; starlets like Paris Hilton making appearances; designer bags of expensive swag for the stars; and distributors grabbing up films in a bidding frenzy at Park City diners. First, it hasn't always been this way; Second, a vast majority of the films at Sundance never win distribution; Third, since 1994 many films never reach to the bidding wars because they are bought before the film cans are shipped to Sundance.

But the halcyon days of Sundance, when the festival gained its reputation as the mighty staging ground for battles between indie distributors for niche markets films were 1996 and later. That year a film unreeled at Sundance and set the stage for a battle that came to fist-fighting, insults, firings and big cash buys for indie film. The film was SHINE, based on a true story, it told of a talented prodigy pianist David Helfgott played by Geoffrey Rush and directed by Scott Hicks. And like the Australian indie film to leap into Oscar contention the year before, THE PIANO, all the indie distributors hoped for Oscar statues to buoy the box office.

While some might say SHINE was a "coming of age" film it really isn't. It is film about the wages of genuis on the psychie of and individual given the grant of incredible talent. Helfgott does come of age during the second act of SHINE, however, it is the story of his entire life and Rush's performance is more about living adulthood with a mental alteration of personality due to his breakdown from stress. The pressure of constraining and fully utilizing a creative talent at it highest level of artisttry leads to the collapse of Helfgott.

At Sundance, Helfgott's dramatic story is analogous to the mental breakdown of Harvey Weinstein in trying to procure the film and failing. Indie film was becoming as much a phenomenon for its production and distribution backstories as for the dramas unreeling on screen. After Tony Safford left the staff of Sundance he eventually took up employment with the Weinstein brothers in acquisitions, giving him special entree at the festival for grabbing up new films by young talent -- or so the Weinsteins hoped.

In a bidding war that Fine Line Features finally won, Safford lost out, not because he wasn't in the game or willing to offer the last and highest bid for the film that brought everyone to tears during its festival screening -- even the hard-bitten agents and talent reps. Miramax lost because Jonathan Taplin, a former Bob Dylan roadie, who had been trying to sell the film to Miramax for more than a year simply wanted to screw Harvey out of the final bid. And who could blame Taupin, engaging in negiotation with Harvey or Bob Weinsteins made the invading parasite in ALIEN seem like an invited house guest by comparsion. Producer Taupin said to director Hicks, "I don't like Miramax, I don't like their arrogance, I don't like anything about them."

This battle for a clear pure breed high-stakes race horse of a film could have all been fought out in other arena's but it all came to a head at Sundance.

But the winds and market pressures of the previous five years were all building to this point of breaking. American Indie film had reached a profitable middle market where investors could realize a profit margin, albeit smaller than high risk box office busters, and with the purchase of Miramax by Disney and Ted Turner buying Fine Line, as well as the evolution of the "classics" or art house divisions of the majors, the stakes for buying hot indie properties increased. The January film festival in the mountains of Utah became the new staging ground for these distribution bidding wars.

Harvey lost his mind in rage after loosing SHINE. The 1996 festival would come to be called the "Ten Days That Shook the Indie World" named after the Russian revolution when the Czar was put out by the Bolsheviks. Castle Rock, the indie division of Warner's paid $10 million for that years festival winner CARE OF THE SPITFIRE GRILL that also got swooped up in the buying frenzy.

After Harvey pushed and punched his way with Taupin, shouted at women reps from other distribution companies using the "B-word" toward the women and almost took Safford's head off for loosing the SHINE film, Sundance was in for yet another shift in percpetion. More than these backroom bully-boy antics that caught the attention of film festival enthusiasts around the country, the purchase price for films at Sundance has escalated with all the studio's sending art house boutique divisions and the former independents Miramax by now owned by Disney, Fine Line now owned by Turner and October by Universal, the heat was turned up underneath sales but also the expectations for box office performance shifted.

Following this incident, Harvey became determined never to loose a bidding war at Sundance again. Miramax would win these wars by buying the films before they reached the festival and the next films Miramax would grab up THE ENGLISH PATIENT and SLING BLADE were acquired before they could reach the festival circuit. The mountaineous roads through Sundance were just too rocky and Miramax would not be the only indie distributor to finally realize this fact.

When the films SHINE and SPITFIRE GRILL failed to reach break even point and payback high bid driven prices, after all the commotion at Sundance, there was little sustained interest in paying inflated dollars the intense competition created. A less spoken truth about free markets is that intense competition among giants actually leads to price inflation and rising costs rather than efficiences as utopian business school economists would have us believe.

Again in the following years, instead of setting the terms of film and story aesthetics as well as picking winners, Sundance was a victim of a vasting shifting marketplace. Just as film critics are not good predictors of popular taste, film festivals like Sundance, were no longer seen as indicators of success for films in distribution. In the future, Geoffrey Gilmore would try to advise indie filmmakers not to sell their films prior to screening them at Sundance in hopes of inflaming Park City bidding wars but that time had passed and $10 million speaks much louder than Gilmore's advice deilvered in hushed tones to inexperienced filmmakers as Billy Bob Thorton would soon to learn with his film SLING BLADE.

Monday, May 07, 2007

MYTHS OF SUNDANCE #5

MYTH #5: THE NARRATIVE STORY OF SUNDANCE FILMS IS DRIVEN BY THE MARKETPLACE MENTALITY OF THE FESTIVAL

The year 1994 was another big turning point for Sundance as the Geoffrey Gilmore era was further taking hold at Sundance. Three films David O. Russell's SPANKING THE MONKEY, Rose Troche's GO FISH and Kevin Smiths' CLERKS came forward as the emerging films in the newly market-like atmosphere of Sundance.

Sure, in years past there had been success with Sundance films SEX. LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE and RESERVOIR DOGS, however, neither film was picked up at Sundance and nobody had seen anything like the bidding wars that would come to typify the cinema lobbies, streets and cafe's of Park City in the mid and late 90s. Prior to 1994, filmmakers came to Utah out of a love for their film and a chance to screen it but never in hopes of striking it rich, hitting the lottery or even acquiring theatrical distribution.

Rose Troche's GO FISH and Kevin Smiths' CLERKS were small budget limited location talkie pics with a gritty urban sensibility that both seemed inspired by the storyless atmospheric films of Jim Jarmsuch and Richard Linklater. Yet, their tone, trajectory, and cultural perspective of each were vastly different. Smith recalls watching Linklater's SLACKERS in New York city and thinking, this guy is from Austin, Texas and I am watching his film and "I can do that" however, Smith's aimless and directless existential CLERKS is about New Jersey. SPANKING THE MONKEY is a mother-son incest film that few would claim was wrritten and made to inspire a distributors feeding-frenzy.

CLERKS had been screened at IFP's IFFM in New York the fall before and no one took interest but in the newly rarified and competitive atmosphere of Gilmore's Sundance Smith film caught the attention, almost to Pierson's surprise, of Harvey Weinstein who with fistfuls of Disney cash was buying up films at an all-you-can-eat-buffet eaters pace.

Christine Vachon and Tom Kalin teamed to bring the lesbian love story, that when reduced down, is about whether an attractive urbane lesbian is lonely enough to accept a frumpy, homely, and older lesbian as her girlfriend. Both Smith's CLERKS and Troche's GO FISH were being rep'd by John Pierson who tauntingly provoked indie distributors to buy the minimalist narratives. As Pierson, Weinstein, and Smith crossed the street to sit down and deal for CLERKS, Pierson shouted out to the reps from the other indies waiting outside the cinema, "This is your last chance" amkinf sure they knew Harvey was going to be soon sitting at their table.

Other indie distributors were also caught by surprise and worried that all the most viable product was being swept onto Harvey's newly enlarged plate. They too were jumping at films that might have been easily passed over a few years ago for the plotting and dismal lack of dramatic arch. But again, the market forces that made indie distributors like October, Miramax, Fine Line, and Goldwyn buy up small indies for a few hundred thousand and see only a few million in profit needed a place to call home and Sundance provided that farm league atmosphere and the competitive bidding began.

Pierson was able to tap this competition among suitors that year to also land a deal with Goldwyn for the distribution of GO FISH. Was there a new wave of Ameircan Indie filmmakers creating and entirely new marketplace? Was Sundance providing a staging place for indies to launch their previously unseen and unknown films that would have ended up in a box in their basements never to see the bulb in a movie theater? Was Sundance forcing indie filmmakers to make film tailored for sales at the sake of an independent and experiemntal vision?

If any aesthetic these films shared it was one of making a feature film on extremely limited budgets. CLERKS was filmed and edited for $27,000 on location in Smith's place of employment. After experiencing extraordinary success at Sundance and later joining the Miramax entourage at Cannes where Tarantino's PULP FICTION took home the Palm d'Or, Smith returned to his clerking job in New Jersey at the same convenience store where he shot the film CLERKS. To say the films and their stories were driven by the marketplace bidding wars at Sundance is to put the cart before the horse.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

MYTHS OF SUNDANCE #4

MYTH #4: SUNDANCE IS PREDICTABLE AND THE JURY FOLLOWS LAST YEARS TREND

And just when it seemed Sundance had turned the corner and begun embracing radical new ideas from the New Queer Cinema movement, another even less politically progressive statement emerged -- Quentin Tarantino, RESERVOIR DOGS and the pulp fiction aesthetic.

Quentin Tarantino is a brilliantly geeky throwback to a bygone era of violently gratuitous film and literature for which his masterful breakout film PULP FICTION is named. First and foremost, like his predecessors in pulp or detective fiction of the serie noire and weird menace schools, Tarantino is an inspired writer with defiant flair and tongue firmly in cheek.

Tarantino was born of an entirely new generation of VHS film enthusiasts who never went to film school (in fact, he never graduated from high school) and after simply and obsessively working at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California. Tarantino and his friend Roger Avery (co-writer of PULP FICTION) watched, wrote and dreamed of making their own films. The video rental geeks fashioned their own graduate program in film by watching movies day-in and day-out. While Sundance was founded by a generation of film enthusiasts who were starved by the lack of access to film viewing (other than in revival cinema houses) the VHS generation grew up with the TV and VCR as their babysitters.

With Tarantino, violent films should be violent for violence sake. He never had time for the pretense of art house films. In fact, at a screening of RESERVOIR DOGS in Park City, when asked about the offensive nature of violence in his films, as if to spit in their face, Tarantino answered, he was offended by the pretentious beauty of Merchant and Ivory films. Afterall, despite the wealth of plenty, titles the video stores were primarily stocked with action and adventure, horror, kung-fu, and b-movies of the sensationalist vein. For Tarantion and Avery there were no classics of early cinema other than shoot-em ups, blood-and-horror, super-natural fight films, high-impact FX, and action and adventure and these movies shaped their world view.

In many ways, if Sundance embodied the indie spirit, it did so by bashing and breaking down paradigms. The b-side mentality that populated the most conservative state of Utah in January was always ready to confront, accuse, and shock you out of what you came to expect from Sundance itself. Tarantino brought back to Sundance the indie spirit embodied in Roger Corman from the early 1960s -- a visceral shock of the weird, sensational and objectly violent. Tarantino's aspirations for film were school-boyish, as he once told Allison Anders on a date he wanted to write a book about how to go to film festivals to get laid.

If you came to Sundance expecting crunchy granola films it gave you New Queer Cinema instead. If you came expecting Native American films it gave you the geeky LA white boy spouting the "n-word" in his scripts without any remorse or regret. If you expected the films to be safe uplifting toiling in the soil stories from the heartland it gave you POISON or sex, lies, and videotape instead.

For better or worse, American Indie film consists of rule breakers, outlaws, misfits and non-conformists to the movie industry standard. The twist Tarantino brought was of careless irony, his films were parodies of themselves and yet very much nothing more serious than the films they parodied.

In the year Tarantino brought RESERVOIR DOGS to Sundance, Alison Anders screened GAS, FOOD AND LODGING and Alexander Rockwell's IN THE SOUP also contended but Rockwell's SOUP about a down and out indie filmmaker played by Steve Buscemi unexpectedly took the top prize. Their films could not have been more different from each other in scope, if they'd met and planned them in advance.

In street cred terms, as an emerging filmmakers festival Sundance always had to deliver something each year that defied the logic of a trend. The festival was in a continual process of trying to reinvent itself and was able to do so because between the period of the mid to late 80s to the earl 90s the number of indie filmmakers sending their films to Sundance for consideration dramatically increased from a few hundred to thousands.

If anything is predictable about Sundance is the defiant spirit of the filmmakers who are outsiders to an insiders industry and want to make a statement.

MYTHS OF SUNDANCE #3

In all my discussions about the American indie film festivals, people often like to throw out plithy statements that fail to appreciate the conplex history and evolution of the festival. And common recant among critics goes like this:

MYTH #3: SUNDANCE ALWAYS PLAYS IT SAFE

If anything Redford deserves a lot of credit for sticking with Sundance despite it's inability to serve his interests and follow the course he'd set for it aesthetically and politically. Often what conspiratorialists and simplistic paranoids fail to appreciate about the success of a cultural phenomenon that reaches critical mass is that as an organism its vitlaity often transcends individuals, supersedes best laid plans and takes on a life of its own far, far beyond the founding visions or masterminds behind them.

In order to maintain a pure conspiracy, there must be a vigorous denial of the truth and the truth behind Sundance is that it never had a cohesive plan that gelled into a controlled form of power. Redford could favor a film or a filmmaker, a script or a project but that never assured it of success either in the arena of Sundance itself or in the outside world of distribution, box office or financial success. Likewise, a filmmaker who saw success emerge from Sundance, Soderbergh for instance, could not easily return favor to Redford or any other minion or passionate loyalist in the Sundance family. As it should be in the world of dynamic and changing artistic expression, it's never that easy.

Before 1992 Sundance tried to promote a culture where artists could be protected from the mean and brutal world of business suits, lawyers, powerbrokers, shady dealers, and blood sucking bottom feeders. However, due to their open door practices and the onslaught of success the festival only served to attract these types more. What people fail to realize, is that the studio system in Hollywood, that everybody rebelled against for their creative survival, was originally established as a West Coast sanctuary for creative artists or, at least, the idea of it in the minds of Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Marcus Loew, William Fox, and Samuel Goldwyn, and all the studio bosses that proceded them. But power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The years 1991 and 92 were big turning points for Sundance when its reputation shifted from the crunchy granola soft 70s-styled PCness that was in its founders hearts to what some would term the cell phone era. Did Sundance promote and conspire to create a "cell phone" culture ? -- No, the cell phone transformed Sundance at a time when it was at its weakest.

While in the midst of staff shake out and hugely changing times Sundance did NOT play it safe. In 1991 the New Queer Cinema movement arrived at Sundance with a young semotics deconstructionist from Brown named Todd Haynes and his producer Christine Vachon. This producer/director duo brought to the festival in Utah a film that was anything but safe called POISON. Haynes previous movie SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY had raised a considerable controversy, first with its funders in the Lynn Cheney NEA era, and then with Mattel the makers of Barbie doll. Haynes Karen Carpenter film has been banned in the U.S. but has become available on the internet. Haynes, with an artist grant support from the Jerome Foundation, and Vachon led a troop of new gay filmmakers with an activist agenda.

Greg Araki THE LIVING END, Tom Kalin, Christopher Munch's THE HOURS AND TIMES and the doc PARIS IS BURNING are all militant gay films that made the Lands End, dockers, and mountain boot Sundance establishment uneasy. Sure, Sundanistias could happily have their heart-strings pulled with films like PARTING GLANCES and enjoy the antics of a film like THE BIRDCAGE but POISON drove them from the theater in fear.

In one scene from POISON, men spit in each other's mouths, a horrifying evocation in the post-HIV trauma era of the early 1990s. More than just a shocking depiction of rape and violence (topics not commonly appearing on the Sundance screen in the early years), Haynes film intercuts three stories of completely different genre, one staged as a documentary to challenge the very conventions of film itself. While most film institutions and certainly the funders were narrowing their aesthetic to narrative "golden mean" storytelling, Haynes was producing avante-garde cinema one could only rarely see on folding chairs in dank warehouses below Canal street or in European cinematheques.

Haynes was experimental and an exception to the simple narrative trend in American indie film. While the expectations at Sundance that year were that Hal Hartnley's TRUST or Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST might take home the Grand Jury Prize from Sundance, the surprise was Hayne's shocking deconstructionist film POISON came away the winner and Vachon's thumbprint would stamp many Sudance seasons to come.

The Sundance of 1991 could not be termed safe and it radically shook the foundation and shifted the direction of the festival for the future.