Sundance can be equal parts glittering and ascetic. Thursday night, as industry insiders lined up for a midnight screening of festival selection Silent House, fedora-flaunting revelers boozed it up to beats from Snoop at Park City’s watering hole, Harry O.’s. More and more, the cinema-industrial complex is coming to rely on Sundance as the means to catch eyeballs for any film with a budget scantier than, say, The Dark Knight Rises. It feels like the Sundance pedigree increasingly means quite a lot, as filmmakers fight for the American public’s fractured attention span. Last year’s festival, under the return-to-its-roots ethos of new festival director John Cooper, proved that you can program eclectically and connect with broader audiences, with films like Cyrus, Blue Valentine, and Winter’s Bone. In fact, Globe-winner and Oscar contender The Kids Are All Right started out at Sundance 2010.
“If you’re in the specialty distribution business, festivals are more critical than ever to the success of any film,” Sundance Selects president Jonathan Sehring told us. “With Sundance being the most important American film festival, and one of the five most important film festivals in the world, it’s stature especially for American independent cinema is second to none.”
Now that studios have largely shuttered or clipped the wings of their specialty divisions, Sundance Selects and its sister company IFC Films are among the few smaller companies trying to pick up the slack. They believe that not every movie has to be a four-quadrant release (to use the term that describes Iron Man 2 being poised to appeal to everyone ages four to 98). But when even studios have a hard time raising cash from investors left spooked by the recession, getting anything other than a comic-book movie made in a profitable way feels like a miracle. The studio economics of wide-releasing don’t work for smaller films. However, combining the Sundance pedigree with new ways of getting films to audiences may be the lifeline that indie films need. For a second year, Sundance Selects has five films from the festival that may never see the inside of an Omaha movie theater, but will be available on-demand nationwide —Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards, Michael Tully’s Septien, Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s These Amazing Shadows, Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, and Gregg Araki’s Kaboom. “The economics of film distribution are in flux, the economics of independent filmmaking are in flux—digital technology has helped lower the production costs and enabled a lot more filmmakers to make movies,” Sehring says. “Right now, the cable VOD platform and, down the road, the Internet are going to be great ways for independent filmmakers to find their audiences.”
Joe Swanberg’s Sundance debut Uncle Kent is case in point. Swanberg’s made a name for himself along with the likes of the Duplass brothers and Andrew Bujalski, as one of the scions in the Mumblecore movement—(according to Sehring, they Mumblecoreans a a little tired of the name, which might be perceived as slightly denigrating, but what can you do?). In films like Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Nights and Weekends, Swanberg creates micro-budget, slice-of-life movies. Uncle Kent is the latest permutation of this style—a quietly ironic L.A.-based animator invites a female friend he met on ChatRoulette over for the weekend, which evolves into a subtle roller coaster of sexual frustration, experimentation, and emotional confusion. Spending the money that, say, Warner Bros. would to release that kind of movie on 3,000 screens is a recipe for financial disaster, which Sehring thinks even Swanberg would acknowledge: “[Joe’s] said, my movies aren’t for the widest audience, but there’s an audience. That’s why he’s one of the first filmmakers to really see new platforms and new technologies as a way to reach his audience—which is a younger audience that is on its computer as much as traditional movie or television.” Now that Sundance Select will make his films available on video-on-demand, Joe can find his audience in all the niches it hides: whether it’s L.A.’s trendy Silverlake district, or central Boise.
In this way, services like video on demand and Netflix’s streaming service can partially recreate the joy of festivals like Sundance—rushing from film to film and trying to catch random, esoteric movies, some of which will hit big, but many of which will never make it to the suburban cineplex. It also possibly provides a financial model for these filmmakers’ tiny little tone poems of movies—films that just a tad more relevant to real life than Little Fockers.
Of course, neither video-on-demand nor Internet streaming will ever duplicate the ambiguous joy of freezing in line waiting to get into a bar jam-packed with swag-laden festival partygoers. Fortunately, you have Little Gold Men to provide you with all our Sundance coverage, so you to can feel the thrills and follies of the Sundance Film Festival—namely, wishing you'd packed a warmer coat.