I got to experience this year’s Sundance Film Festival in a
way few others did: as a member of the U.S. Dramatic Competition jury. It was a
great experience, challenging at times but definitely worthwhile. The best part
of being a juror is that a driver takes you to every screening where prime
seats are reserved.
If that sounds mundane, let me explain: navigating this wintry festival as a civilian can be daunting, especially during the jam-packed opening weekend. (I remember standing and shivering one frigid night some years ago, awaiting the arrival of a shuttle bus to take me to my next showing.) Some 45,000 people descend on Park City, Utah over the course of the ten-day event, and even after the “cool kids” depart on Monday and Tuesday, screenings are often sold out and people turned away.
The other “best part” of being on this panel was spending time with my fellow jurors: Slate.com critic and podcast host Dana Stevens, filmmaker Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners), producer and Sundance veteran Peter Saraf (Little Miss Sunshine, Safety Not Guaranteed), and prolific director-producer Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X Men). We got along extremely well and were pleased to discover that we had similar taste, which isn’t always the case in situations like this. Having two critics and three articulate and astute filmmakers on the panel made for stimulating conversations all week long.
Because I had to teach my first class of the semester at USC on Thursday night, I missed the opening ceremonies and arrived late Friday; the other jurors were already one or two films ahead of me. That meant I had to log three feature films a day in order to catch up and take in all sixteen titles in our category. That left me little time or energy to see anything outside my required quota. (Fortunately, at the end of the road on Friday I was able to see Steve James’ beautiful documentary about Roger Ebert, Life Itself. This candid portrait of the influential and inspiring critic will be released theatrically and will wind up on CNN, which helped to finance it. I’m glad such a worthy doc will reach the wide audience it deserves.) On Saturday morning we were shuttled to the Sundance Institute for a filmmakers’ brunch where founder Robert Redford reminisced about his early days as an actor when he went through the often-humiliating audition process and learned what it was like to fail. He offered empathy and support for the efforts of this year’s participants in the gathering he initiated thirty years ago.
Day by day, we saw films at public showings—often their premieres—and had the chance to stay for q&a sessions, which are always interesting and informative. We had to discount the wild cheering that greeted many of the screenings, which were packed with the directors’ family, friends, and coworkers. This may give the creators a welcome ego boost, but it may not reflect how an ordinary audience will respond.
By Friday evening, when it was time for our official deliberation, we thought we could breeze through the process in a half-hour or so. We then decided that it would be irresponsible not to review each of the sixteen titles in contention and voice our feelings one more time. Four and a half hours later we reached our decision, intentionally spreading our awards among as many films as possible and citing them for their particular strengths.
The awards ceremony on Saturday night was electrifying at times. I hadn’t stopped to think that we were part of a newsmaking event: after all, it isn’t just individual movies that are launched at Sundance but entire careers. The recipients were jubilant, and rightly so: their hard work paid off with a prestigious prize and the promise of a bright road ahead. I can’t wait for audiences to see some of our selections, including Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, Jeff Preiss’ Low Down, Cutter Hodierne’s Fishing Without Nets, David and Nathan Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, and Justin Simien’s Dear White People. They aren’t all perfect movies, but they feature fresh new voices that deserve encouragement. We on the jury can’t wait to see what these writers and directors do next, and that sense of emerging talent is what the Sundance Film Festival is all about.
Postscript: on Saturday afternoon my daughter Jessie and I got another perspective on the festival as our friend Chapin Cutler, the longtime technical director at Sundance (as well as Telluride and other leading film events) gave us a tour behind the scenes at the festival nerve center. I daresay few people ever think about the logistics involved in such an endeavor, nor should they. But when you learn that 486 pieces of content were shipped into Park City, in a variety of film and digital formats, and every one of them was personally inspected…or that the print traffic team was responsible for 5,000 deliveries (that’s 28 films per hour, 18 hours a day, for 11 days) you start to appreciate how much work goes into such an enterprise. Every piece of projection and sound equipment has at least one backup, and just as at Telluride, many of the theaters are actually converted spaces—from a library to a synagogue—that magically become screening facilities with world-class projection and perfect sight lines. Chapin and his team at Boston Light & Sound have the benefit of experience behind them, as well as vast technical knowledge. These highly dedicated people love what they do and perform daily miracles to make sure things go right throughout the festival.