Team Film School Rejects is about 16 hours from finally heading out to the Sundance Film Festival (we like to show up a couple of days late, in hopes that our beds will be warm for us), and in between the last minute planning, scheduling, packing, and crying jags, it’s high time we stepped back and appreciated the festival for what it is – which is, in no uncertain terms, pretty damn essential to independent film in America. That is something that many of us might forget – it’s easy to when you’re there, freezing cold, hungry, exhausted, and without a ticket to what will surely be “the next big thing” and forced to watch displaced Hollywood glitterati hoof it up Main St. in high heels to hit the next “gifting suite.”
But Sundance matters, and it matters for a hefty number of reasons that we often forget. So, before I wake up at 3:30 in the morning to put my money where my big mouth is, here’s why Sundance matters.
The Sundance Film Festival is the largest independent film festival in the United States (thank goodness Toronto is in Canada and Cannes is in France, amirite?), but the festival sparked from a much more low-key and down-home idea. Sundance was born in August 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival, a film fest crafted simply to bring more filmmakers to Utah. Fun fact! The festival was founded by Sterling Van Wagenen (who was then the head of Wildwood, Robert Redford’s company) and Utah Film Commission members John Earle and Cirina Hampton Catania. Redford served as Chairperson.
The original aim of the festival was “to showcase strictly American-made films, highlight what the potential of independent film could be and to increase visibility for filmmaking in Utah…the main focus of the event was to conduct a competition for independent American films, present a series of retrospective films and filmmaker panel discussions and to celebrate the Frank Capra Award (given the first year to Jimmy Stewart); it highlighted the work of ‘regional’ filmmakers who worked outside the Hollywood system.” A solid framework? You bet. And the festival accomplished it handily with its first slate, which included (buckle up for this listing, seriously) Deliverance, A Streetcar Named Desire, Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, and The Sweet Smell of Success. The Utah/US Film Festival could have ceased to exist after just that first year, and it would still go down in history as one the most stunningly well-programmed film festivals, oh I don’t know, ever.
But the festival didn’t stop there. The next year, Van Wagenen moved on to head up what would later become the Sundance Institute (more on that later), with Hampton Catania moving into the role of Executive Director. Redford upped his work with the festival as inaugural chairman, eventually becoming the face of the fest. The festival decamped from Salt Lake City to Park City, and moved from September to January, reportedly on the advice of no less than Sydney Pollack, who (quite rightly) thought that a ski town-based winter festival would attract Hollywood and the big studios. It did. In 1991, it officially became the Sundance Film Festival, matching up names with Van Wagenen’s already flourishing institute.
Over time, the festival has grown immeasurably – turning out Oscar winners and nominees, partnering up with BAM, bringing its films to London, theaters around America, and right into people’s homes with On-Demand programming. And, of course, the festival has become much more Hollywood-ized (looking at you, “gifting suites”). But Sundance hasn’t just allowed itself to become Utah’s answer to Hollywood, as they’ve sought to put the focus back on films with its stunningly aptly named “Focus on Film” campaign that kicked off in 2007. Proof positive that that festival is still championing indies? Programming categories like NEXT (low budget films), New Frontier (films that merge art and new technology), and Park City at Midnight (the last place you’ll find big name producers looking for a cheap flick).
But, history aside, Sundance matters because it continues to champion independent films and the people who make them.
When it comes to individual films that have broken out at Sundance, even a quick glimpse at just the full list of award winners unleashes a staggering number of films that have led to big things – bigger films, star-making turns, bold indies that broke though, awards season leaders. Films like Senna, Animal Kingdom, Winter’s Bone, An Education, The Cove, Precious, Frozen River, The House of Sand, Junebug, Murderball, Super Size Me, The Station Agent, Capturing the Friedmans, Whale Rider, Secretary, Memento, You Can Count on Me, Girlfight, Run Lola Run, Pi, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Brothers McMullen, Clerks, Hoops Dreams, El Mariachi, sex, lies and videotape, Blood Simple, the list goes on and on. Other films that broke out at Sundance? Saw, Garden State, Super Troopers, The Blair Witch Project, Better Luck Tomorrow, Primer, Reservoir Dogs, Little Miss Sunshine, Moon, Thank You for Smoking, and Napoleon Dynamite. With immense quality (or, at the very least, originality) like that, well, your eyes just make go a bit wobbly when trying to process them all.
But while naming bevy of films that owe their success and recognizability to Sundance may be a fun parlor trick, what makes the quickest (and hardest) impression is the listing of individual directors who got their big break at the festival: Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Darren Aronofsky, James Wan, Edward Burns, and Jim Jarmusch. You feel me yet?
But “Sundance” is not just the film festival, it’s also the Sundance Institute, a year-round, multi-level support system for filmmakers that has helped over 5,000 artists and their films with their craft and art. Five thousand. The Institute is a nonprofit organization, that (per their mission statement) “is dedicated to the discovery and development of independent artists and audiences. Through its programs, the Institute seeks to discover, support, and inspire independent film and theatre artists from the United States and around the world, and to introduce audiences to their new work.”
The institute’s Artist Programs are conducted through Labs and Fellowships, including the Feature Film Program (features to come out of the program? Films like HOWL, Sin Nombre, and Amreeka), the Documentary Film Program, the Theatre Program (yup, the institute also supports plays), the Native American and Indigenous Program, the Film Music Program’s Composers Lab, the Creative Producing Initiative (a year-round series of programs for up and coming indie producers), the Alumni Initiative, and their FILM FORWARD program (which helps nurture cross-cultural independent film understanding). If you are an independent filmmaker of any persuasion, the Sundance Institute can help and support you. The same cannot be said for other festivals.
Earlier this morning, we rolled out our first of many mini-interviews with some of the various movers and shakers at Sundance – critics, publicists, producers, distributors, filmmakers, and more. Each interview will end with one question – “why do you think Sundance is important?” As of now, we’ve conducted five interviews, and not one interviewee has balked at the question. Even the driest of wits has paused, reflected, and given answers that are startlingly candid, and though all the answers have been different, there’s been one common thread – Sundance matters to them, as a home for creativity that will continue for years to come, as a glimpse at the future, as a microcosm of what independent cinema can (and should) be.