Low-key Sundance Film Festival still has room for Oprah
The 32nd Annual Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday with the absence of one big venue, fewer celebrities and less glitz. Paris Hilton is not tromping around the snowy main street of Park City, but that's just fine with festival leaders. For an independent filmmaker, Sundance remains the gold standard and a film lover's delight.
Over the next 11 days bleary-eyed moviegoers will feast on 120 feature films and 80 shorts selected from nearly 10,000 entries. Films are screened in Park City, Ogden, The Sundance Resort and Salt Lake City.
Festival programmers have used the country’s anemic economic condition as an excuse to shift Sundance’s focus over the last two years from a highly materialistic studio-fueled feeding frenzy back to its edgier roots with an eye to ferreting out the undiscovered independent filmmaker.
At the traditional opening-day press conference at the Egyptian Theatre on Park City's Main Street, Sundance founder, actor, director and activist Robert Redford gave a 30-year perspective on how he started Sundance to provide a voice to independent artists and how it evolved from the original Sundance Lab, to include the Festival itself followed by the Sundance Channel.
"One thing we continue to ask is, “What are we doing and why? Is it creating opportunities for new artists?” Redford said.
Looked handsome, rugged, and much younger than any 75 year-old this writer can remember in cords and a plaid shirt, Redford got the biggest laugh of the day when a questioner mentioned that with the impending retirement of Regis Philbin and Larry King's recent exit, whether Redford was considering following them.
With a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Well, I am going to die….but I am not going to retire.”
Sundance has endured and prospered over the years because it is not afraid to tinker with its formula and is willing to adapt to achieve its vision of supporting the independent filmmaker. So what is new this year?
Rather than one star-studded premiere attended by a bevy of well-known Hollywood types, this year’s festival opened with four lower key films: a narrative and documentary from the United States and the same from the international submissions. These films include Project Nim, a documentary from the Oscar-winning team of Man on Wire about an experiment trying to train a chimpanzee to act like a human (it has already been bought by HBO); Pariah, a teenager coming of age drama; Sing Your Song, an alluring documentary about Harry Belafonte; and All That is Sold Melts into Air, a new take on the buddy cop comedy.
This year the festival has lost one of its key venues, the 600-seat Park City Racquet Club, to a massive renovation project. The facility, which first introduced movie goers to Precious, Frozen River and Junebug will be replaced by two movie theatres on the outskirts of town in Kimball Junction.
Because fewer seats will be available this year, Park City will feel more crowded, said festival director John Cooper. "Ambush marketers” who are piggybacking on Sundance events are also around, but Cooper reminded patrons that “Magic happens in the theatre, not in the streets."
There continues to be a strong outreach to the cinema buff who wants to experience Sundance from his or own living room. Five films will be available On Demand for 30 days on most major cable systems and the festival will continue hosting satellite screenings in eight cities (Seattle was added this year).
Sundance continues to capitalize on social media with more options than one person could ever keep up with. From Twitter to a Facebook Fan page to frequent emails and a vastly upgraded and interactive Ipad/iphone application, the festival has done a masterful job of connecting those here with those kibitzing from afar.
In prior years a major complaint from critics, business people and well, just about everyone, was the inadequacy of existing networks to service Internet and phone traffic. Throw in a blizzard, and communication came to a screeching halt. No more. The Festival has installed 50 access points at 12 film festival venues both indoors and outdoors –what they call “industrial strength free wi-fi” which is reputed to provide vast improvement in signal range.
Filmgoers will see a large number of homegrown new films and filmmakers from The Sundance Institute’s workshops. Six of the 16 movies selected for the U.S. Dramatic Competition hail from Sundance labs that nurture young talent and emphasize creativity over commercial hype. One of these films, Silent House, features Elizabeth Olsen, yep, you guessed it—Mary Kate and Ashley’s sister — who stars as a young woman seeking to recover her life after escaping an abusive cult.
Stars, stars, lots of — if not A list — big names nonetheless. Sundance would not be Sundance without movie stars embracing the town as its own. We all have our stories of running into a Sally Field at the grocery store squeezing lemons.
This year should have a slightly lower wattage group—no Tom Hanks this year. But Emma Roberts, Blair Underwood, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Demi Moore, Evan McGregor will be on hand. And Al Pacino, Channing Tatum and Katie Holmes will lend some star power to the closing-night closing cop drama The Story of No One.
And of course, we can’t discount the growing rumors that Oprah is coming to town to buy some documentaries for her new network.