Out of the celebrity glare, finding the festival's true purpose


by Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

21 January 2008


PARK CITY, Utah—There is a Sundance Film Festival that is formed in our minds by journalists who seem to write the same story every year.

It is the Sundance that Hollywood flies in for. It’s the one where celebrities make their directorial debuts, then make their way to Main Street for all-night partying with their A-list buds.

It’s where studio agents yell into cell phones in crazy bidding rituals that drive the prices of that year’s buzz generators into the non-indie-film stratosphere.

That’s not my Sundance.

The Sundance I’ve come to know and love is dominated by one image: the shuttle bus navigating the snow-crusted streets of Park City at midnight.

It is packed with young people, whip-smart and dead broke, talking about whatever films they saw that day with the free tickets they got for doing menial chores on the festival’s behalf.

My Sundance doesn’t feature many celebrity encounters, unless you count Thursday, when I stood in the press-credential line next to Manohla Dargis, the petite word stylist who writes beautiful film reviews for the New York Times. I do spend time talking with directors, but not the ones you’ll usually see hoisting a Directors Guild award or Oscar this time of year.

At the end of the day I don’t turn in at the Yarrow or the Marriott or any of the fancy hotels, but at a big time-share out of town along with a bunch of other folks who, for various reasons, have scraped their way here and have come together thanks to an enterprising woman - more about her in later stories - who used Craigslist.

But why does a TV critic come here? To see documentary films and anything else that will be coming to television soon, whether over the air or on DVD. That’s how a lot of independent film makes its way to the heartland. Even if you lived in New York City, you’d be far more likely to see these films in your living room than a movie theater.

Documentaries are the great pleasure that I never seem to have time for in my day-to-day. Even the ones that fall flat, or cover the topics that are lighter than mountain air, even those films have something to say - which may have something to do with the person who made the documentary and the years of effort and piles of credit-card debt spent to bring an idea to life.

Sundance gives me an opportunity to discover the best of these, and you’ll be reading more about them in the weeks and months to come.

It’s Thursday, Day 1 of Sundance, premiere night, when a single movie is showcased. This year it’s “In Bruges,” a mordant Irish comedy starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as hit men sent to a Flemish tourist trap - Bruges - to hide out after one of their jobs goes awry.

You may have seen a trailer for this if you’ve gone to the movies lately. That’s because “In Bruges” is opening in some markets about four weeks after its Sundance premiere.

For me, this was one strike against going to see the film. What’s the point of flying 1,200 miles to see something that’s already being plugged at the local cineplex?

Even if I weren’t writing this column daily and shooting video, it would be impossible to see all the films that interest me. There are 32 films in competition in the domestic and international documentary categories alone.

For every documentary, there is at least one feature film here at Sundance. I’ll see some of those, with first priority to those made for TV, like “Sugar,” an HBO Films production, and “Raisin in the Sun,” which Sean Combs is making for ABC.

An estimated 50,000 people were expected to descend on Park City this weekend for the opening of Sundance. The Eccles Theater, the largest of the public screening venues, seats exactly 1,270 people - a limit strictly enforced by the local fire chief. So do the math.

Instead, I camped out at the Sundance headquarters Thursday night and watched four films on DVD. All the screeners were quietly loaned to me by publicists in advance of their premieres.

Afterward, I caught a midnight bus to Main Street, the hub of Sundance’s nightlife. A load of passengers got on at the Eccles Theater after seeing the late showing of “In Bruges.”

The two who sat next to me were Mary and Melissa, English-lit majors at DePauw University in Indiana. They explained to me how, during the semester break, they could come to Sundance and earn school credit. Lucky kids!

Melissa was wearing a warm-looking two-tone knit cap that said “In Bruges.” She needed it, since the first screening reached capacity before she got inside.

“I didn’t think I would like the movie,” Mary said.

“But after standing in line for the first screening, we decided we were going to stick it out and see it,” Melissa said.

And they both kind of enjoyed the film.

“I knew it was going to be a comedy, but this was really a dark comedy, and I like dark humor,” Mary said.

I often read about the “Sundance effect,” in which films receive a lofty reception from festival-goers, which converts into a high bidding price once the distributors jump in, which is followed by a quiet plopping sound when the thing finally arrives in theaters.

One theory is that Park City’s high altitude creates a headiness in those doing the deals.

Others cite the Sundance audience, which is more affluent and sophisticated than even the people who frequent art houses.

What I often don’t read in press accounts of Sundance, though, are little stories like these, which are in fact utterly typical of the Sundance experience - eager film buffs who have come a long way to see 10 or so premieres in a bubble.

More often than not, their reviews are inevitably heightened by the sheer investment of time involved getting here.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article