PARK CITY, Utah - The weather was picture perfect, with temperatures in the 40s and not a single snowflake in the sky. The stars were out in full force, among them Jim Carrey, Susan Sarandon, John Krasinski, Ashton Kutcher, and even Mike Tyson (the subject of a new documentary by James Toback).
Yet it was hard not to feel as if something was a tad off about this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which began on Jan. 15 and concludes Sunday. The energy seemed much lower than usual; the crowds considerably thinner. Despite some truly exceptional onscreen efforts, it was hard not to conclude that this film festival, in its 25th year, had become yet another victim of the ongoing economic crisis.
It's a wrap: This year, indie film festival reflected the state of the economy
Consider the scene last weekend on Park City’s Main Street, normally gridlocked with star-gawking teenagers and demi-celebrities drifting in and out of “gifting boutiques” (i.e., makeshift lounges where companies like Rolex and Levi’s hand out free stuff to people who make more than enough money to afford said items). Usually, the pedestrians spill off the sidewalk and into the street, making it impossible for traffic to move more than a few inches at a time.
This year, however, the walk up Main Street was fairly painless; and even the notoriously snail-paced shuttle buses were able to get your where you needed to go.
As for that other grand tradition, the epic bidding war among distributors over a just-premiered film: Well, this year, there were certainly a couple of mobbed screenings that resulted in immediate sales - chiefly, the British coming-of-age drama “An Education,” which Sony Pictures Classics acquired for release this fall. (At the premiere at the tiny Egyptian Theater last Sunday, more than 50 people who were initially allowed inside by ticket-takers had to be kicked out after it became apparent that the screening had been wildly oversold.)
More often, though, films that would have sold very quickly in past festivals languished. “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” received a reported standing ovation after its Jan. 16 premiere at the Park City Racquet Club. By the time I caught up with it at a press screening the following morning, this brutally frank and difficult movie - about a young Harlem teen in the 1980s, pregnant by her own father and contending with HIV - was the one title just about everyone in town was talking about.
As of Thursday, however, “Push” still hadn’t secured distribution, despite the star wattage of Mariah Carey in a small role, and a supporting turn by Mo’Nique that many (this critic included) feel is a lock to secure an Oscar nomination next year.
Just as puzzling was the timid reaction to “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” starring Jim Carrey as a gay Texas con man who repeatedly escapes prison in order to be reunited with his lover (Ewan MacGregor). Among the very finest films I’ve ever seen at this festival, “Phillip Morris” - which premiered out of competition - shifts effortlessly from comedy to heartbreak and back again. It also features a truly audacious performance by Carrey, who makes this con man’s ardor for his boyfriend so palpable that you might just find yourself brushing away tears as the bizarre story unfolds.
Yet despite very favorable critical response and reported interest from a number of distributors, the movie - like “Push” - still hadn’t sold after the festival’s first week.
If high-profile movies starring the likes of Jim Carrey and Mariah Carey can’t find a distributor, where does that leave some of the tinier Sundance efforts - the stuff on which this festival first staked its reputation? My favorite film of the dramatic competition was “Don’t Let Me Drown,” written and directed by newcomer Cruz Angeles. The story isn’t much: A sometimes hokey coming-of-age saga about a Mexican-American teenager in Brooklyn who falls in love with an African-American girl whose sister was recently killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Angeles has great affection for his teenage characters - affection that pours off the screen. If nothing else, the movie serves as a stinging rebuke to so many portraits of inner-city teen life (including “Push”), which are filled with dysfunction and drug abuse. The kids in “Don’t Let Me Drown” actually seem to enjoy be kids, a point that more filmmakers would do well to remember.
All that said, I’d be surprised if “Don’t Let Me Drown” gets seen much beyond the festival circuit. A number of indie distributors have gone out of business in the last year. The audience for offbeat, modest-scaled efforts appears to be drying up. (None of the films that first premiered at Sundance in 2008 ranked in the top 150 highest grossing films of the year, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.)
Sundance continues to do its job, sharing work that leaves you eager to debate and dissect. But independent film - a longstanding training ground for some of the most important artists working today - nonetheless finds itself at the same crossroads as so many cultural entities these days. Without money and attention, it’s in danger of evaporating completely.