Just Make Media!


Sunday, May 13, 2007



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.


Kerri said...

It is really fun to read this series of stories about Sundance Film Festival because it reads like a chronology of the life of films and how the stories impacted individuals who brought them to the screen.

I had no idea this was behind what I see on the screen when I go to the Lagoon, Edina, or Riverview Theaters to see my favorite movies.

Thanks alot! Keep up the good reporting.

Film Cans said...

It's really funny blog i like it
All things including the sets, props, costumes, styling, and characters will have to symbolize the time and background of the event.