Film festival time always sneaks up you, but this year it’s even worse. Coming to town a week early to avoid Olympic logistical conflicts, the Sundance Film Festival can drive a would-be cinema-snob crazy even under the most ideal circumstances. But the day of reckoning is here, and you’re hopelessly befuddled. How can you expect to engage in coffee shop banter about which films best capture the post-9/11 zeitgeist, or casually comment on what will be “this year’s Memento?”
If this were high school, you know what you’d do. You’d reach for the booklet with that telltale bumblebee pattern and cram madly. What you need are Cliff’s Notes for Sundance.
We at City Weekly are happy to provide you with an invaluable tool for breaking down the festival into easily digestible splices of celluloid. Just remember: Our guide is intended as a study aid to complement a thoughtful, thorough experience of a wonderful film festival, not as a replacement for the intellectually lazy.
But it works that way, too.
List of Significant Characters
Founder of the Sundance Institute and occasional movie actor, Redford had a vision for a place to nurture the talents of budding American filmmaking talent while providing a write-off ski vacation for industry insiders.
Agents, attorneys, publicists and distribution representatives swarm into Park City dressed in typically dark clothing that has led to them being dubbed “PIBs”—”People in Black”—by Park City locals. It is unclear whether the fashion choice is the result of moody artistic temperaments or a fear that they must stand out in stark contrast for rescue parties in the event of a sudden snowdrift.
The Film Media
Mostly from Southern California, critics and other entertainment journalists spend nearly the entire length of the festival talking more about how much they hate dealing with the weather than about the films they’ve seen.
Usually make an appearance only if they have a financial stake in the film. They can be glimpsed for a few seconds at a time through a sea of personal assistants, bodyguards and hangers-on.
Though often hard to recognize clearly under several layers of clothing, they can usually be identified by the comments from unctuous third-tier industry types (“I just loved you in [movie the person has never seen]”) or film buffs (“I just loved you in [movie you’ve never heard of]”).
Occasionally spotted out of the corner of one’s eye at screenings. Usually considered mythological.
Day One: Attendees begin trickling in for the opening night film, The Laramie Project. VIPs pack the Opening Gala at the Salt Lake Art Center for a peek at cast members like Christina Ricci, Steve Buscemi and Peter Fonda, only to discover that most people are unable to actually make it through the human traffic jam to the main room.
Day Two: Park City screenings begin in earnest. Everyone scrambles to see the first public screening of the Dramatic Competition film that has the most “buzz,” oblivious to the fact that this year—like every year—that buzz is generated entirely by the film with the most annoyingly aggressive publicist. Attendees gripe that the makeshift venues necessitated by the incomplete new Holiday Cinemas are actually more claustrophobic than the old Holiday Cinemas, which nobody thought was possible. Unaffiliated festival-goers flock to Burger King when they realize that all the restaurants in Park City have been booked for private parties since last January.
Day Three: People actually see the film with the most “buzz” and immediately start looking for something that actually deserves it. Complete strangers on the festival shuttles begin asking one another, “So, what have you seen that’s good?” Attendees at Salt Lake City screenings gradually come to the realization that the big stars in the movie they just waited in line two hours to see generally have no desire to be in Salt Lake City. Attendees at Park City screenings are overheard saying, “What do you mean there are Salt Lake City screenings?”
Day Four: Stiff-necked, glassy-eyed journalists begin wandering Park City’s Main Street in a daze, muttering under their breath about the icy sidewalks. Rumors of the festival’s first big-money “pickup” (a film purchased for theatrical distribution) begin trickling through the crowds, perpetuating the notion the festival is a big Hollywood marketplace rather than an artistic showcase. At least one condo party gets busted; 1,000 drunken industry revelers with nowhere else to go begin chanting Irish drinking songs in the nude on the Town Lift Plaza.
Day Five: The first weekend behind them, the attendees settle into a dull, plodding progression from one film to another. Servers at Park City restaurants begin gathering to tell stories about which famous names were most obnoxious about getting a table. Devoted wait-listers for festival screenings clue in to the fact that early-morning screenings are a sure thing, since all the pass-holders are too hung over to make it. The next “buzz” film is anointed, until someone realizes that the buzz was actually just bad cell phone reception.
Day Six: A director snaps when, during the post-screening question-and-answer period, she’s asked for the fourth time about the film into which she poured her heart and soul, “What was your budget?” A genuinely deserving “buzz” film builds momentum, leading to yet another mad scramble for the few remaining seats at the few remaining public screenings.
Day Seven: The “second wind” hits the attendees, and people get excited again about seeing some great films. Movie-lovers and media members realize yet again that the Documentary Competition category is better from top to bottom than the Dramatic Competition category, but no one will give the documentaries the publicity they deserve unless Courtney Love is suing somebody involved.
Day Eight: After an entire week spent in darkened theaters or on their cell phones, attendees are disoriented when another human being makes eye contact. Additional disorientation is caused by the realization that Parker Posey was in only eight of this year’s festival films.
Day Nine: Filmmakers who have yet to make distribution deals become so desperate that they begin to consider selling their films to UPN. Someone finally admits, regarding the avant-garde film everyone has been raving about, “I didn’t get it.” The collective radiation from a week of 10,000 cell phones in non-stop use causes every bag of microwave popcorn within the Park City limits to spontaneously explode.
Day Ten: Everyone prepares for the awards ceremony by falling into a comatose slumber for the first time in 10 days. The Grand Jury Prize is awarded to the film that pissed off the fewest members of the jury, while the Directing Prize is awarded to the film that pissed off the most members of the jury.
Day Eleven: Caravans head out to Salt Lake International Airport filled with newly minted geniuses who, in three years, will be lured by Hollywood into making the same kinds of pre-digested films Sundance was created to combat. And everyone who loves the fevered intensity of the festival—for all its quirks and flaws—will mourn a little bit that the next one is now another year away.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Capsule descriptions in the film guide often praise films for “eschewing narrative conventions.” Discuss the extent to which this term can be interchanged with “making no sense whatsoever.”
2. Did The Blair Witch Project convince every clown with a digital video camera that he could make millions as a filmmaker, or does it just seem that way?
3. Dogme ‘95 films and all their jittery, “ooh, look at me, I’m an artist because I’m using a hand-held camera” cousins just make me freaking seasick. Does that make me shallow?
4. Create a graph identifying the relationship between the length of the wait-list line for any given festival film and the number of times the words “sex,” “lust” and “steamy” are used in the film guide synopsis.
5. Explain the likely reaction by average Utahns if they actually stopped to consider how many homosexuals were coming to the state in the space of 11 days.
6. Short films are for wimps. Discuss.
7. Is Park City too small for a world-class film festival, or is it time to stop bitching and just deal with it already?
8. In the post-Will & Grace world, can’t we admit that the mere presence of gay characters in an independent film no longer makes it inherently “edgy?”
9. If you see one work of transcendent filmmaking genius during the festival, does that make up for the dozens of other hours spent waiting in lines in freezing weather for the merely good films?
10. Ask yourself whether you go to Sundance because you care anything about American independent cinema, or whether you’re hoping against hope to be 50 yards away from Nicole Kidman for just a few pathetic moments.