Sundance 2010’s festival theme was REBEL: “This is the renewed rebellion. This is the recharged fight against the establishment.” I’m not sure exactly why this theme was chosen, but I imagine it had something to do with the departure of long-time festival director Geoffrey Gilmore and the hiring of his replacement, John Cooper. New leadership, new plan of attack.
Based on this theme it would appear that those in charge were trying to steer the prestigious festival back to a more “independent” mindset. Perhaps, back to its early ‘80s roots-the glory days when Sundance blazed the trail for independent cinema with the likes of BLOOD SIMPLE, STRANGER THAN PARADISE, and PARIS, TEXAS.
So, in 2010 did they achieve what they wanted? Did they get back to their roots and rebrand themselves as reckless, risk taking rebels? My answer: maybe.
To me, it felt as if the films, overall, were a bit riskier, less classical, and more “rebellious” than in years past. There definitely was a much higher percentage of films I was so-so on than ones I went crazy over, but is that because the selections were so bizarre, so brilliant, so avant-garde that I wasn’t prepared for it? Or were they just mediocre films? I’m not sure I’m qualified to make that determination, but I will say that more than once I left a film shaking my head wondering how in the heck a distributor was going to market it.
Maybe they accomplished what they wanted with their selections. A program of non-classical, non-mainstream films that not everyone will accept – with or without a star-studded cast. But that brings me to my next point. The vast majority of the selections – at least the US Dramatic films – had at least one “name” in the cast. Almost every film Q&A I attended, the leads – be it Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon Levitt or Robert Duvall – were in attendance. Here’s Sundance apparently wanting to get back to its rebel ways, and I’m seeing more celebrities in a two-hour screening than I do in an entire month in Los Angeles. Is this rebellion? Is this getting back to its roots? I’m not sure.
To their credit, they did institute the BEST OF NEXT category this year, which basically highlights a group of films that were made by (essentially) unknowns for (allegedly) little money. I saw one of those films, BASS ACKWARDS, and really enjoyed it. But why can’t they include these films in general competition? Why do they have to be labeled as, essentially, small films made by small people? Why can’t we see if they stack up to the Ryan Gosling/Robert Duvall/Adrien Brody indies?
Don’t answer that. There are a million and one reasons why they shouldn’t compete against these bigger productions, but let’s face it, by segregating them to their own playground Sundance is essentially creating a more polarized film festival and certainly not something that feels like a renewed rebellion.
If Sundance truly wants to get back to its glory days, I think it would need to wipe the slate clean. Maybe they consider making restrictions for submissions like budget caps or major award winner limitations. Or maybe if they also require that past Sundance winners and/or participants can only submit every other year? I won’t pretend to have the right answer, but something more drastic needs to happen if they want to recharge the “fight against the establishment.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love Sundance. The last thing I want to do is sound like I’m bashing it. I love how it started, what it’s become and, most importantly, what it’s done for independent cinema. I only bring all of this up because I hate to see Sundance try and rebrand itself into something it’s not and just accept what it’s become. Own it, love it, and be happy for all of the smaller, “rebellious” festivals that you’ve paved the way for.
At the end of the day, Sundance is still the dream destination of all indie filmmakers, whether they’ll admit it or not. Its level of acceptance is so selective and its reputation is so paramount that just to be included would make any nonconformist die of pure elation.