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Feeling self-important as I took my seat on the plane that would take me to Salt Lake City, I endured the typical small talk from the fellow next to me: “Where you headed?”
Responding coolly, as if I make such trips every day, I replied “Sundance” and awaited his admiration.
“Where’s that?” he asked.
Thinking that perhaps I didn’t say it clearly enough I repeated: “The Sundance Film Festival.”
Seeing the blank look on his face, I went on to explain that Sundance is the biggest film festival in the world. I told him that some of the greatest films from the past two decades have premiered or been discovered there.
“Oh,” he said politely. “I’m in sales.”
And so, as we flew on to El Paso to change planes, I received the latest word on computer security systems.
While I may have heard the stories about Sundance-glamorous movie stars, stretch limos (Hummer versions as well as your standard variety), wild, late-night parties, and all the “next big things”—it’s humbling to find that other people actually have lives. And yet, I shall proceed…
The Salt Lake airport gave me my first clue that I wasn’t in Kansas (or rather Austin) anymore. Business suits were replaced by winter attire straight from Rodeo Drive. Cell phone conversations spilled words like “buzz,” “junket,” and “Redford.”
I shared the shuttle to Park City with a screenwriter there to support the film his friend Bobcat Goldthwait had directed (never got to see that one) and a film distributor who had heard some good things about Wild Tigers I Have Known (missed that one, too—are you sensing a pattern, here?).
As the rest of the passengers were dropped off at their respective lodgings, I couldn’t wait to see the house I would be sharing with a handful of other media types. According to MapQuest it was just a couple of blocks from Main Street-that’s where everyone congregates to eat, drink, and star-gaze. Once again humbled, I learned that Park City is surrounded by mountains, one being a couple of blocks from Main Street—if you don’t fall on the ice patches on your way down the mountain you will surely have a heart attack walking back up. And though the famed Sundance transit system didn’t come near our place, cab drivers were happy to oblige.
As I took a bus across town to Sundance headquarters to get my press credentials, I quickly learned how important that transit system is. Since my housemate—experienced attendee and Paste magazine editor Tim Porter—was not there yet, I was forced to navigate this most unusual happening on my own.
For the 9,000 or so people who call Park City their home, Sundance can be everything from a cash cow to a bull in a china shop: the town’s population easily exceeds 50,000 during the 11-day event (in ‘04 the usual population clocked in under 8,000). I had heard some nasty stories about townspeople attacking festival goers—verbally and literally—but I have nothing but praise for the people I met (Well, there was that one grocery clerk who tried her best to cheat me out of an additional 87 cents for a bottle of water).
Finally making it to my first film, I arrived at the 6:30 press screening of Friends with Money, starring an ensemble cast that includes Jennifer Aniston and Frances McDormand. Despite the lack of applause at the end (these are journalists, remember) it was well received.
Then it was time to check out the opening night party at the Park Meadows Country Club. Finally, my first Sundance soiree! My excitement was cooled, literally, as I walked the “short” distance (thanks, Yarrow bellman) in the brunt of an icy-cold wind. Eventually I found more freezing filmgoers, all waiting outside to be allowed into the party. After another half hour of cattle herding (just how many times can I get away with bad beef metaphors) I found myself in a large outdoor tent with a great band but very few people. Before long I discovered another section of the party going on inside where a huge buffet had been vanquished along with most of the liquor. Another hour of this was all I could take before making it back to the house, collapsing into dreams of a real Sundance party.
The next day I was up and out the door with film reviewer Robert Davis for a wonderful breakfast on Main Street before making the press screening of Lucky Number Slevin, starring another ensemble cast which includes Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and Ben Kingsley. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Later, at headquarters, we ran into Matt Dentler, director of programming for the SXSW Film Festival-no doubt looking for possible entries into his event that starts March 10th.
By the afternoon I was back at the house reconnoitering the night’s activities with indieWIRE founders Brian Clark and J.D. Ashcroft and the Paste guys. We bar-hopped and hit a couple of parties, including the PBS bash, before settling into a great Thai restaurant just off Main Street. It was all good, but that classic Sundance party still escaped me.
Somehow, on day three, I got out of the house by 7 a.m. and caught a shuttle to the public showing of Little Miss Sunshine starring Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Alan Arkin. The buzz about this film had swelled since its premiere the night before. After receiving a standing ovation, the entire cast—the directors, film scorer, producers, everybody-got up front and answered dozens of questions. Later that day we learned that Fox Searchlight bought the rights for a cool 10 million and the film got scheduled for a summer release. Carell, who is already having a stellar year, revealed to the packed crowd that when he told his wife the film was well-received she replied-in no small amount of sarcasm-“Yeah, you needed something good to happen.”
I barely made it to the press screening of the Beastie Boys’ film Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That! based on footage from 50 fans who were given video cameras to shoot the boys’ concert at Madison Square Garden. Afterward I went up to the ski lodge and had a conversation with the legends of hip-hop themselves. The first thing Adam Yauch (a.k.a. MCA) wanted to know from me was if the bass was pumping in the theatre. (It was.) And they all wanted me to know about a new energy drink they were working on: “It has grain alcohol, caffeine, as much sugar as we can possibly get in there,” explained Yauch. “There might be turtle’s blood. It’s called ‘Antidote’. It’s going to be big time.”
By evening we were back on Main Street, looking for food and drink. After some schmoozing and schnacking we made our Himalayan trek up to the house and fell onto the couches, lamenting on the lack of a really good party. Being that it was only midnight, a few phone calls were made, a couple of interns were sent on a beer gathering mission (thank you, Red Stripe), and within an hour the house was filled with a slew of directors, writers, actors, crew members, and other industry folk—plus a few bleary eyed souls who thought they were there to make videos with Paris Hilton. (Paris did not show.)
Sundance may be full of empty promises and overblown pitches but this party rocked. Paste CD’s pumped through the stereo while a steady stream of “real” movie people passed through. Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, whose film Four Eyed Monsters was a big hit at last year’s Slamdance Festival (a kind of “step sister” to Sundance) were in the kitchen talking about the future of the internet and film with Gen Art Film Festival’s Jeff Abramson. First-time writer/director Erica Dunton was there talking about this year’s Slamdance success story-her romantic comedy Find Love starring Alexie Gilmore and Christian Camargo. The film would have a distribution deal with Canada’s Maple Pictures by the end of the week. Alexie Gilmore can also be seen in Meryl Streep’s upcoming The Devil Wears Prada.
The guys from Withoutabox.com were there chatting up their unique online distribution service of which Four Eyed Monsters would be a part of in a matter of days. As the party rolled on, I realized the house was full of young, talented creative types—perhaps even some of tomorrow’s stars. Talent who, like the composer I met that did short film and television commercial scores, were on the brink of something bigger.
Maybe it was the Red Stripe, but my search for the perfect Sundance party was over. And I never had to leave my home (away-from-home).
During the indieWIRE party on Sunday, Graham Leggat, the new director of the San Francisco Film Society, unveiled SF360.org, a website dedicated to independent film including Bay-Area festivals and media arts groups. Partnering with indieWIRE, it’s an ambitious undertaking that will involve bringing hundreds of filmmakers and industry professionals under one umbrella. Afterwards, I slipped into the Egyptian theatre on Main Street to catch the Danish film Allegro. More than anything else, the Egyptian theatre is known for photo ops where its simple marquee with the festival’s name is the perfect backdrop. Later I saw the beautiful Mexican film Solo Dios Sabe.
My last full day at Sundance ended with the biggest party (aside from ours) of the entire festival. Gen Art and MySpace sponsored the event at the Park City Mountain Lodge where a couple thousand guests enjoyed a high-energy, live performance from the Beastie Boys. You can imagine the logistical nightmare of separating the invited guests from the party crashers (not that I blame them for trying). But organizers did an incredible job with help from dozens of people outside in temperatures approaching zero-including Alex Klenert, the VP of publicity for THINKFilm, who spent the night checking badges of attendees.
These people are the unnamed heroes of Sundance, the people who never get the attention but spend hundreds of sleepless, thankless hours keeping this “zoo” together. And though it’s taken a week to catch up on my sleep, I’ve already made plans for next year. Heck, next time I might even see a few more films.
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