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Sundance Changes with the Times

by Anne Thompson
December 2, 2009 7:58 AM
5 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

There's a new Sundance sheriff in town.

The Geoff Gilmore era is effectively over, and his trusted lieutenant for two decades, John Cooper, is now at the helm. Obviously, Sundance watchers of all stripes will comb over the Sundance line-up for gleanings of change. The most dramatic: the number of films is down to 113 from 120, and there are a few less premieres than last year. "There's only so many real slots," says Cooper. "That sets the numbers of films we can really with respect bring to the festival in the right way."

With the selection still sight unseen, I am encouraged.

At Sundance founder Robert Redford's behest, Gilmore pursued a heartfelt mission to improve the lot of indie filmmakers and grew the fest into a sprawling, envied, must-attend showcase of the best in indie and world cinema. But he also enjoyed mixing it up with the Hollywood power-brokers every year. More and more over time, Gilmore reveled in the role of Sundance gatekeeper, even negotiating with filmmakers over their rough cuts (to be fair, Cannes' Gilles Jacob did the same thing). While he would deny it, Gilmore tended to measure the success of each festival by the number of big sales. That meant booking a plethora of mainstream indie-hybrids that might not rate with critics but were (often) acquired by distribs, such titles as the comedy Hamlet 2, starring Steve Coogan, What Just Happened?, starring Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, The Great Buck Howard, starring Tom and Colin Hanks, and Henry Poole, starring Owen Luke Wilson.

Those days are gone.

For the first time, Cooper grappled with studios and sales agents over acceptances and slots (everyone fights for a prime spot on the first weekend). One sales agent confirms that this year Sundance programmers were less accessible to lobbying during the selection process, but cooperative after the fact about booking slots and talent. "We sequestered ourselves in the final weeks of programming," says Cooper, "not talking to sales reps every day. That is going to help the industry ultimately, making sure the highest quality and originality make it into the festival."

Cooper and his number-one, director of programming Trevor Groth, while relying on the same seasoned staff (and one new shorts programmer) initiated a different process for selecting the films. They met over the spring and summer to define where they were and where they wanted to go, and tweaked the screening process. "When Geoff left we reshifted a lot of things," says Cooper, who used to oversee much of the Sundance event itself, but left the heavy-duty negotiating to Gilmore. Under his watch, Cooper set up rules designed to treat everyone fairly. "I'm not into playing big games with people."

While Cooper gave everyone more responsibility, he also gave strict marching orders. "We were mainly refocusing our energy on keeping on point," he says. "It can be said that the industry is in high-level evolution, moving fast. At the same time our mission stays the same, we have to stick to artistic excellence and originality as the cue to how we choose films. Let the industry decide how to settle itself. We can't be the solution for the industry. We have to align ourselves with the independent film community. Our selections in general may be more rigorous than in the past. We're sticking to excellence."

Precious is the hallmark of what Sundance aspires to, says Cooper. "Its trajectory proves that there's an audience out there for other kind of work than mainstream. They exist."

For Groth, the new screening process "made for a cleaner vision of what the fest could be. We engaged in proper discussions. When we were less organized about it we made some choices on the fly. This year was structured in a way that allowed us to make the most clear decisions."

One sensitive Sundance response to the direction indie filmmakers are taking is the addition of the "Next" program. It includes micro-budget films, often from first-time directors, made without stars. These pictures often wouldn't make it into the selection because they didn't quite make the grade for a competition or frontier title. This is just the sort of movie that is growing exponentially these days. Lynn Shelton's Humpday, for example could have played any of these sections, Cooper says.

The programmers tried to assess what section would best serve the needs of the individual film, says Groth: "The competition is an intense pressure-cooker. Films that come from a more modest place are best served out of competition." Groth missed being able to program some of the films, often with "an energetic, youthful quality" that didn't make it into Sundance at his now-shuttered CineVegas, But he was able to slot some of them into Next. While submissions levels were more or less equivalent to last year (shorts were slightly down), predictably, the numbers of small-scale digital films were up--a market segment that will presumably continue to grow. Next is a filtering system for films that may never get theatrical distribution these days, but could find a life online. "We want to help films find an audience," says Cooper, "that's what's key here. Film festivals themselves have become part of the distribution strategy."

To that end, instead of yet another series of digital distribution panels, the fest is looking for more case studies and hard facts that could be useful to filmmakers. Around the corner, predicts Cooper, are more day-and-fest-date scenarios where films jump into instant online distribution once they've premiered. "We'll start to do that for real this year, and next year we'll see what part we want to play in that, as we did with shorts on iTunes. We're a big powerful brand, very useful."

The eclectic new Spotlight section is designed to showcase films "we love," says Cooper, "dynamic, wonderful films," often well-worn international fest circuit titles that will play well for Sundance audiences, but are not premieres--those are in the Premiere or World Dramatic section. Many already have distribution, unlike the Competition selection, which is comprised entirely of films that are for sale.

Another ambitious exercise is taking some titles from the festival out to eight cities (from Brooklyn and Brookline to Madison) around the country, with filmmakers in tow--on January 28, the second Thursday of the festival--for Sundance USA, an experiment Cooper admits is both "risky and not easy." More cities have asked to be included, but the logistics will have to be assessed.

After all, Sundance is always, like the industry it reflects, a work in progress.

Get the total selection here and for more exhaustive info and analysis, at IndieWIRE, which has the line-ups for U.S. docs, U.S. dramatic films, world docs and world narrative. UPDATE: Movieline picks eight to watch.The LAT looks at Sundance as reflection of change in indie market.

{photo of John Cooper and Trevor Groth by Mark Von Holden.]

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More: Festivals, Independents, Sundance

5 Comments

  • Seth Willenson | December 7, 2009 6:07 AMReply

    Anne Thompson wrote an intelligent comment. Sundance was not supposed to be a sales agent festival with a collateral power structure. I always joked it was like the reform democrats winning city hall

    It should spend time creating and developing an aujdience for different kinds of films not stars and parties and deals and commisskions.

    Im not a purist- I make a lkiving from eclectic movkies but I tohught Sundance was something different.

    It became irrelevant to everything except fashion and style and bonus commissions about 10 years ago.

  • mp | December 7, 2009 5:35 AMReply

    Entry fees for film festivals are a source of revenue - at Sundance, the fees range from $45 to $95 per entry - take an average of $50 per entry, that's $400,000. from 8,000 entries. Not insignificant. It is unlikely they will limit entries for several reasons, dollars being right up there.

    I'm just sayin'.

  • Bally Wick | December 3, 2009 8:56 AMReply

    Fernando, it's immoral to put a limit on the # of submissions (3,724), not on selecting 3% (113).

  • Scilla Andreen | December 3, 2009 6:52 AMReply

    Kudos to John Cooper! I believe if anyone can evolve Sundance he can. For the first time in years I am really looking forward to going to Park City.

    Scilla Andreen
    CEO IndieFlix

  • Fernando | December 3, 2009 6:16 AMReply

    113 Films?

    I think what Sundance does to filmmakers is obscene. Why would they accept over 8,000 submissions and only accept 113? (plus a handful of shorts). Any indie filmmaker has a better chance of winning the lottery than getting into Sundance, and not even by merit.

    If the festival organizers had a bit of decency they would stop receiving submissions after hitting the 1000 or 2000 mark. I'm sorry but I am not sure how indie filmmakers can feel as encouraged as you do, although I applaud your optimism.

    This "work in progress" Sundance feels business as usual. Even if they take it on the road.

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