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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.

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