Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Sundance Film Festival Doesn't Care About You

Isn't about time to just ignore the lameness that is the modern day Sundance Film Festival. Honestly, it's been years since anyone broke into the biz with a film that premiered there. As Sundance honcho Geoff Gilmore says, there are way too many submissions-8,500 or so trying to find a place with only 200 slots. And many of these are already taken up by films that have done well at the Toronto Film Festival or had powerful lobbyists from the mini-major studios and reps like John Sloss putting their heavy weight behind them. The concept of an INDEPENDENT FILM has shifted over the years to mean films in the 5-6 million dollar range with well-known stars trying to do a little acting. There is a chasm, a vast abyss of a difference between Little Miss Sunshine and Clerks or The Blair Witch Project. What used to be an INDEPENDENT FILM is now called MICROCINEMA and contrary to their claims, Sundance does not support that kind of backyard, DIY film anymore. Dust Sundance from your thoughts like that machine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and put your energies into self promotion, online distribution and festivals that do support your efforts like South by Southwest or Cinevegas. Go to Filmmaker Lance Weiler's great WORKBOOK PROJECT.COM and learn more about what it takes to be an independent filmmaker 2.0

In the meantime, someone on the MYSPACE film forums posted their Sundance "Dear John" letter which must go out to about 8,300 folks right before Christmas. I'm sincerely sorry that he was rejected and hope he won't be too discouraged. Since I've never actually seen one of these, I really appreciate his candor in posting it. Perhaps it was cathartic for him. Here's the letter with a few comments from me that I think will help translate this from the language of B.S.

Dear John,

On behalf of our programming staff(Since I did not actually watch your film), I would like to thank you for submitting your film to the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, we are not able to include it in our program this year(Nor were we ever really considering it-thank you for your $35 submission fee-we enjoyed the lunch). We received nearly one thousand more submissions this year (over 8,500 in total) than we did for the 2007 Festival(Which was really great for us, thank you, since that's another $35,000 in our pockets), so many tough decisions had to be made in order to narrow the field down to under 200 films. Please rest assured that your work was carefully considered by our programming team(And be comforted that we have not wasted your submission since Stan is now using your DVD as a coaster), and the decision was incredibly difficult to say the least(Well, that's the least we could say).

My sincere hope is that this decision does not discourage you in any way(But please, really, do the world a favor and stop making films NOW). I would like to wish you the best of luck with your film(Good Luck with that), and we look forward to having the opportunity to view your work in the future(We hope you will send us another $35 next year).

Geoffrey Gilmore
Director, Sundance Film Festival


gmercer said...

Funny stuff, but what I still find amazing is that year after year, prior and post Sundance, there's all this talk about how Sundance isn't what it used to be? Was it ever what it used to be?

In it's tenure as the premiere US festival only a small handfull of films have been, what we now refer to as, microbudget. And the ones that were in fact microbudget and broke the barriers of Sundance's Hollywood influence were small films with big reputations...or should I say big representation.

In defense of Sundance, chances are that 8400 of the 8500 films submitted annually are probably, practially unwatchable. Anyone can surf the net and the various short film sites and see a myriad of short films being produced and a multitude of horrendous works of farts.

So to further this discussion even longer I'd like to discuss the dreaded word CRAFT. In the mid 90's one of the greatest accomplishments in independent film technology came to dv. We were amazed at the quality image that was being rendered by the new digital format.

It now was possible for your average guy...or gal to make an acceptable visual presentation without breaking the bank or maxing out credit cards. Now anybody can go and make a great is that? But don't forget the ANYBODY can make a movie!

Although I don't know for sure what Sundance or other festivals criteria is for choosing their programming but I'm sure it has changed since Clerks and the Blair Witch Project graced their little festival.

I would imagine a filmmaker whose intent is acceptance into Sundance or some other major festival must now artisically and strategically craft their film with the notion that they have 10 MINUTES TO IMPRESS...10 minutes! Cause that is all the time they have to watch your work of art.

So depending upon your genre...which better be a thoughtful must have someone killed by social injustice, raped by political tyranny...preferrably in the US or in tears as they thoughtfully reminisce the decisions of their youth by the end of the first reel. Or you can go hire an A-List actor to slum it for your meaningful interpretation of horrific events. Chances are you'll go the 10 minute route.

To make a long story late, Sundance can never live up to what it once was and never was and my recomendation to all of the filmmakers out there is this...make better films and maybe one day you can win the lottery that is Sundance.

Brian said...


I totally agree with your comment that the Sundance FIlm Festival has an overinflated reputation for helping a minority of films and filmmakers jump from their backyards into Hollywood. Some of these indeed were falsified stories of films that didn't come from nowhere but were made to seem as though they did. But what I think was a more specific catalyst for the myth was Peter Broderick's article for FILMMAKER magazine which helped define the independent film model of the '90s. Broderick did a cost and resource analysis of a handful of films(including CLERKS) that gave rise to the whole 16mm-$30,000 "hell or high water" first feature concept. It was Broderick who popularized the notion of a "no-budget" film which led to a generation of filmmakers switching from the "calling card" short film model of the 70s and 80s to the raw and dirt cheap homemade feature film concept of the 90s.

Now at the time, Sundance traded off on this concept since it gave them a real cachet in the film world as a champion of the underdog, openly defying Hollywood's closed gates and even suggesting that they would not accept "genre" films for submission. You have to remember that this was BEFORE Hollywood really took notice of them and started sending their buyers, agents and execs to Park City to buy up anything that might be profitable. There was a very SMALL window in which filmmakers could make a name for themselves there with a real backyard film since all the stars were aligned. The festival wanted these films since it gave them the edginess they wanted as their public image, buyers from Hollywood had not yet lost their shirts on films they bought there, and the marketing divisions of all the distributors decided that since there were no stars to push in these films, that the director and his or her "STORY" was to be the star. Thus, you heard all about Robert Rodriguez selling his body to science, Kevin Smith working in the convenience store during the day and shooting at night, and Quentin Tarantino somehow going from working in a Venice Beach video store on Friday to being the world's most famous director on Monday.

The fact is,like most people, Sundance did not really have the courage of its convictions or rather they had the convictions that were best suited for their own survival. Once the "suits" saw that these indie films they bought for 1-1.5 million dollars were not hugely profitable and required all kinds of cleaning up in order to release, the checkbooks shut tight. But they learned that there might be an audience for more challenging entertainment which WOULD be more profitable if only it were more "Hollywood", that is if "PI" starred Tom Hanks instead. So, we got Paramount Classics, Gramercy, Fine Line Features etc all left hands of the big studios producing smaller scale pictures to corner the market. And Sundance became the vehicle for premiering these films, getting the press to spread the word. The films would now have the stars and so would the festival since the stars came over with the films.

This is the current state of the festival and the rise in submissions from 1,500 in the 90s to this year's 8,500 is, as you say, the result of Digital Filmmaking tools that allow ANY schmuck to make a film without even an inkling of craft. Even in the heyday of the 90s, these NO-BUDGET films cost $30,000. Now, that's STILL a lot of money to just toss out the window so I think that back then, you really had to believe you had the right mojo and study your craft before you just went out and spent the dough. Today a filmmaker like Joe Swanberg can knock off a feature on DV for less than $2,000 and just as he always says, no one is going to lose anything for that kind of money. So on the one hand you have more freedom to be creative and experimental but on the other people can just go out and shoot their friends arguing about nothing in their cars and call it cinema. But as Quentin T said at a recent press conference for GRINDHOUSE, if you go out and make something really dazzling, really push the limits of your own abilities and that of your resources, your film can stand out even more in the pile of total shite. It's not exactly about winning the lottery but just rolling up your sleeves and putting the time in to learn the craft, do the work, and not stop when the film is done but to try and promote the film and yourself in every way possible. Someone listed a stat recently that in the USA alone, some 20,000 indie films are completed each year and only about 200 ever see any kind of release at all. Your goal should be to make the best movie you can, then do anything you can do to make sure as many people as possible see it. And please everyone, really just stop talking about Sundance as part of your "festival strategy" unless you have a powerful producer's rep or you have a good slot at Toronto in September. There are plenty of other fests that can do more for you now than Sundance. Sundance really doesn't need you or your product anymore.

sixpacksam said...

Sundance is for losers. Real filmmakers are going to apply to the Atco International Film Festival. The first one is happening this year. In fact, I'm organizing it. The lucky films that are "worthy" enough to make the cut are going to be screened at the world renowned Atco International RaceWay. Screenings will be held between races, next to the hot dog stand.
I've recently invested significant funds in a digital projector and a state-of-the-art opaque sheet. My Ford 350 will be the roving projecting center and, of course, party central (A keeger with Slitz on tap Ho!).
In addition to this prestigious screening opportunity, all chosen filmmakers will be given 2 coupons redeemable at the hotdog stand (cheesefries only. Hotdogs are only for paying customers). Besides the free cheesefries, all winning filmmakers will also be given a free ride in Atco Raceway's newest funny car,"The Trouser Torpedo." BURN RUBBER BABY!
So please be sure to submit to my kick ass festival. This opportunity is too good to not turn down. Send checks or money orders of $185 to Six Pack Sam at 1234 Citrus Drive Atco, New Jersey 08004. Thank You and remember what Elvis always said, "There's those who eat the peanut butter and bananna sandwiches and those who make them." Be the one who makes them. Solid.