..,Gary Dretzka
..,Leonard Klady
...David Poland
...Doug Pratt
...Ray Pride
...S.T. VanAirsdale


JANUARY 28, 2006

It's STILL The Movies, Stupid... xPart One

Why all the Sundance anxiety?

I am always a little shocked when I read a bevy of stories from very intelligent writers that seem to reflect last year's story instead of this year's story. This year, Sundance has suffered the long-simmering residual from last year's hype orgy in the hills.

Much like the perfect theatrical movie storm of 2004 (The Passion Of The Christ/Shrek 2/Spider-Man 2), last year was Sundance's ultimate year for drooling hype in Park City. Main Street was an endless blizzard of unrelated events, celebrity, and marketing. This year... not so much.

I'm not saying that there weren't plenty of whores on every corner of Main Street for those who wished to indulge in irrelevancy. But to this set of eyes, it seemed that the ferocity was cut pretty much in half from last year. Really... half. There were the parties at Harry O's... but the throngs outside were neither as large, loud, or angry as in years past. There were empty spaces taken up by the likes of Motorola, Cadillac and Volkswagon... but the windows were either set up with displays or obscured so there was no visual assault of the goings on inside. Even Starbucks added more than it detracted this year, its music series now maturing into something very popular and well loved.

The response, of course, is now that there wasn't enough sparkle... that the swag wasn't very good this year... that the parties were a bit flat. To misquote Hee Haw, "If it weren't for bad news, we'd make up no news at all... woe, despair and agony on me."

The production of the festival appeared from my seats to be the best ever as well. Press screenings were announced earlier than ever, the screening rooms were well laid out, and for titles that drew a lot of interest, multiple screenings were set up. The DVD and video lending library was well organized and the volunteers were both smart and very friendly. The press spaces were also well organized and gave journos plenty of places in each of the key areas of the fest in town to hang out and get work done.

There was the occasional projection glitch, but with this many screenings that is to be expected. And in each case, the problem was quickly fixed and not really disruptive to the screenings.

Publicists suffered, as always, up here. Too many movies, too few names, and by the time some of the smaller films were discovered, the talent was gone or there were not enough added screenings to accommodate demand. At the Park City Marriot, fest headquarters, there were some onerous financial demands made on the publicists who hold court on the pool level, much as the Intercontinental maximized their revenues as a host hotel in Toronto. Still, it seemed that everyone muddled through and a lot of work got done.

Oh yes... and the movies...

The serious focus really should be on the movies. The bitching about the movies goes back to Toronto, back through Cannes, and all the way back to last year's Sundance. The "independent film movement" has changed. For one (major) thing, it is no longer a movement. Like the civil rights movement, feminism, and low-slung jeans, movements can only last so long before they succeed in their initial goal and, when they try to adapt, there is far too much belly fat being thrown in our faces. That evolutionary wall does not mean that the movement is no longer wanted or necessary. But it's hard to keep getting sympathy when the wide perception is that you have already won.

Independent film has won so big in the last five years that it has essentially destroyed itself. The alleged box office slump of 2005 was far worse in the Indie/Dependent world (at least through the first 8 months of the year.... I haven't run numbers in a while) than in any other part of the business... even if you take The Passion of The Christ out of the equation. A significant part of that was the Miramax shutdown and the Fox Searchlight nap. But still, foreign films were almost non-existent in the first part of the year and docs underperformed relentlessly (with a few exceptions).

But the issue is bigger than that. For years, those of us who care have been arguing over what constitutes an indie film. And the answer has varied. But in the last couple of years, it has changed in a more profound, less debatable way. Miramax, for all intents and purposes, got out of the indie business. Fox Searchlight took over both the marketing and film selection leadership that Miramax abandoned. Focus established a more filmmaker-driven model, but showed itself willing to spend more than any Dependant - other than Miramax - ever had, the most expensive example being Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with 21 Grams following behind. Bob Berney was driven to give up Newmarket for the corporate shield of Time-Warner when he couldn't get the money he and Mr. Gibson were owed for The Passion of The Christ. Lions Gate out-Dimensioned Dimension with grosser, younger, nastier horror porn combined with Tom Ortenberg's happy preoccupation with chasing Oscar.

Only Sony Classics really stayed the course of looking to make the best of bargains of quality that could be strong on DVD at the least and surprise hits at best. Ironically, their big hit and Oscar hopeful of 2005/6 is Capote... which they never would have made themselves. They inherited it from the exiting United Artists (and, to be fair, have made the most of it in one of their best awards pushes in their history). But UA is no longer there... nor is their retro model... which produced Hotel Rwanda and Capote, among many other strong-profile quality films before they disappeared into the ether.

Paramount Classics was betwixt and between, not as successful as Sony Classics in the poverty model of operations - though Barker and Bernard have always had more support from Sony in their run than Vitale/Dinerstein had in their situation - and now, with the hire of John Lesher, hopes to move towards the Searchlight or Focus model... just as Focus and Searchlight move into more expensive, more expansive models themselves.

DreamWorks, which with a couple of exceptions was, in the last two years, in more direct competition with Searchlight and Focus than with the majors, is gone, sucked into Paramount in a talent grab. The business model was just too tough. And now the Weinsteins are going to have to face that same nightmare. If they have two or three smashes that generate hundreds of millions in profits in the next three years, they will be fine. If they do not, they will sell off their library and become the Saul Zaentz' (they would hope) of the following decade.

But getting back to Sundance...

Who are these filmmakers making movies for? The two sales here of over $5 million are both films that did not need the festival to be sold, only really here to theoretically raise their price tags in the fever pitch of the snow blindness. After that, there is a parade of interesting, quality-debated, small films with little for marketers to hook into, that will sell for under $4 million, mostly for under $2 million. And by that standard, one has to consider this the most successful Sundance in many years.

Companies like Picturehouse, Sam Goldwyn/Roadside, the newly reconfigured First Look, IFC, ThinkFilm, all need product and they need it badly. Two years ago, a movie like Stay or Stephanie Daley were not getting distribution. Now films like these will get distribution from people who want and need them to succeed. And they will get some real loving care, a circumstance which few small films in the Dependent system could claim in recent years.

Still, the dream remains Fox Searchlight and Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State and Open Water. The prayer for Sundance, critics, and studios alike remains In The Bedroom.

Another run at the movies tomorrow...

January 27, 2006
January 26, 2006
January 25, 2006
January 23, 2006
January 22, 2006
January 21, 2006
January 20, 2006


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