Just Make Media!


Monday, June 04, 2007



In 1998 Minnesotan Garret Williams' first feature SPARK went to Sundance, ten years after Minnesotan's Sandy Smolan's RACHEL RIVER and David Burton Morris' PATTI ROCKS took the stage at Park City. While many lament the lack of Minnesota films at Sundance, the fact is that long before Patrick Coyle's DETECTIVE FICTION unreeled at the festival in 2003, there had been many Minnesotan's in the running for Sundance glory.

Truth be told, the expectations and high visibility of being accepted at Sundance had so eclipsed the early years of the festival that many, including writers for the StarTribune of Minneapolis had forgotten the legacy of Minnesota artists whose films has screening there and at the old US Film Festival. By the time Coyle arrived at Sundance so many Minnesotan's were saying DETECTIVE FICTION's acceptance was the "first Minnesota indie filmmaker" to be selected it was bewildering. How blind could people be?

Yet, a person really could not blame this misperception since Sundance had been radically transformed from the early days (before Geoffrey Gilmore) and its reputation really preceded itself. It almost seemed that, because of its distant existence on the outer edge of the universe, news about Sundance or at least its legends, could take a couple of years to enter the common vernacular.

In many people's minds Sundance was a monolithic gorilla holding the indie film world in its hands like Ann Darrow in KING KONG. But upclose and inside the the festival and institute to which it was attached, Sundance once again was unraveling by numbers. And the power center of indie film still did not rest with Sundance as both its pundits and supporters would want us to believe.

In an brilliantly insightful moment in the mid-90s, the people at Sundance had envisioned a world outside Park City that would transform film distribution and exhibition. The two vehicles Redford and the Sundance staff saw for exporting the brand were cable TV and special exhibition cinema centers that far exceeded the conventional four wall black room sticky floor with popcorn in the lobby arcades where films had been shown for decades -- a arcane model that came into existence in the 1930s and never really updated itself.

Ideas are great but basically a dime a dozen unless you can execute as almost any branding operation from Starbucks to Apple to Amazon can easily understand. And Sundance had a great idea. They launched the Sundance Channel for cable and in partnership with General Cinema (GC) began building two cinema complexes -- one in Westchester County north of New York City and the other in Portland, Oregon -- that would house a venue for Sundance indie films, cafe, restaurants, and retail devoted to indie cinema chic. These two cimena complexes were meant to be the first in a chain of cinema's that would one day rival Landmark cinema's around the country but would not rely on distributors like Miramax, Focus Features, Sony Classics, or other distributors that were clogging the distribution channel for low budget indie films.

The belief behind Sundance cinema complexes was that there was a large enough intelligent film going audience around the country, albeit niche, that would want to see films that never made it through the million dollar P&A distribution mill to see films like William's SPARK, James Gray's THE YARDS, Darren Aronofsky's REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, Jarmusch's DEAD MAN, or Todd Haynes VELVET GOLDMINE or edgy foreign-like pics such as Leon Ichaso's bio-pic PIƱERO without suffering under the brutal and crushing investment pressures of an 600 or 1000 screen nationwide release. Having the Sundance brand might just bring audiences into the film complexes without huge media buys and expensive print roll outs.

However, the Sundance branding exercise came up against a number of painful obstacles. First, just as the Sundance Channel was about to unveil itself, a brisk rival arrived on the scene in the form of the Independent Film Channel. Second, while in the middle of construction of the cinema centers, GC collapsed and went into bankruptcy along with a number of other cinema chains. And third, Sundance tried to leap before it had a concrete plan of execution. Redford is known by friend and foe alike for his inability to execute due to his micro-management and controlling tendencies. Redford, a frustrated graphic designer and artist, would pick over the minute details of designing posters or film catalogues but was painfully remiss in returning phone calls from investors like Paul Allen who showed interest in expanding the Sundance brand to cable, cinema complexes and even digital channel distribution.

And while these concepts were being thrown up and poorly executed, films like SPARKS, THE YARDS, and others from the Sundance catalogue -- a "middle industry" if you will -- where never reaching an audience that might have returned a small margin of profit by blockbuster standards but still enriched the culture and language of cinema. Sundance had branched out in the attempt to broaden the exhibition opportunites beyond Miramax, Focus Features, and Sony Classics to the benefit of the undistributed indie. A noble quest but nothing like a conspiracy that nay-sayers like to paint Sundance with as a subversive element in the indie film culture.