By Andrew Arthur and James Patton
I wanted to have a sense of place. I wanted to have a sense of community. I wanted to do projects that were different than run-of-the-mill. That’s how this thing started. -Robert Redford
When Robert Redford first became involved with what was then called the “Utah/US Film Festival” in the early 1980’s, there were two dozen films and one movie theater. Reportedly, his duties included standing on the street and trying to persuade people to come inside and buy tickets to help keep the financial losses to a minimum.
These days Redford sets the tone at a global, live-streamed press conference attended by top media from around the world, welcomes moguls and the stars, and then goes incognito to try to see a few films himself as 60,000 excited fans — and $80 million dollars — pour into Park City.
We sat with Mr. Redford at a roundtable following the press conference. He spoke of embracing change and also of preserving his original vision. The focus that first year was on the filmmakers themselves, and for him that is still the sacred center of the festival, and the aspect he strives to keep unchanged despite all the hoopla and hype and money that now surrounds it. Every year he invites the filmmakers to a private brunch at his cozy ski resort of Sundance, and creates an informal family atmosphere to build the community which inspired his vision. After that, and throughout the festival, there are events sponsored by Redford’s Sundance Institute where those with films being shown can meet and mingle with their peers.
And it works. Filmmakers we spoke to, many of whom had struggled with micro-budgets and endless challenges, felt warmed and welcomed by the Redford touch. Though some of the films shown at Sundance are unlikely to be seen beyond the festival circuit, this moment of inclusion gives the filmmakers the encouragement and energy to keep practicing their art.
And, of course, every year, there are the surprises, the breakouts, the multimillion dollar deals, and careers are born. And for Redford that’s part of it too. “When somebody comes out of nowhere and with our support goes somewhere, that’s a real pleasure to me.”
This was a very good year at Sundance. Energy and optimism were high, there were more events and parties than ever before, and there were so many good films it was impossible to see them all.
We were up at seven every day to collect press tickets, then on to a morning panel discussion or screening, lunchtime interviews, afternoon receptions, evening film premieres, after parties, midnight screenings and late night events. A ten-day whirlwind.
Now much more than just a film festival, Sundance has become a cultural change nexus, networking artists and financing, activists and sponsors.
Government organizations, independent charities and leading non-profits come to Sundance to benefit from the intersection of celebrities, filmmakers, and funders. The Sundance Institute sets the tone, providing creative and financial support to emerging and aspiring filmmakers and theater artists through a series of Labs, Fellowships, and Retreats, both in the U.S. and, increasingly, abroad. Its opening-night “Artists at the Table” dinner brought contributors together with filmmakers, composers, and other film and theater artists.
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation hosted various receptions as well as a science-in-film panel in connection with its science screenplay fellowships and annual Sloan Feature Film Prize.
The Washington D.C.- based entertainment and arts advocate Creative Coalition is a major presence at the festival, and their Spotlight Initiative Awards dinner is the unofficial Sundance gala.
The British Film Commission and British Film Institute were on hand to support British filmmakers and help them meet their American counterparts at the always well-attended British Brunch. This year Los Angeles British Consul-General Dame Barbara Hay welcomed guests and delivered opening remarks.
There was also a celebrity brunch in support of the Ascend Humanitarian Alliance and their fight against poverty, and an opening night dinner and mid-festival reception hosted by the Skoll Foundation, which supports social entrepreneurs working to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
It’s virtually impossible to attend or report on more than a small fraction of the three hundred parties thrown over ten days by studios and film production companies, the Sundance Institute, corporate sponsors and individuals. Here are a few.
The scene kicked off on Thursday night (January 17th) with the Day 1 Party at the Legacy Lodge. The festival took over the massive venue and filled it to overflowing with filmmakers and festival goers.
BAMCinemaFest’s fifth anniversary party, hosted by Peter Saarsgard, was Friday evening, along with the first gourmet dinner at ChefDance.
On Saturday afternoon, and throughout the festival, the Sundance Channel hosted four o’clock tea and cocktails at its headquarters on Main Street, also the venue for a variety of press conferences and special events.
Saturday’s after-party for the premiere of James Franco’s boundary-pushing INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR was held at Cisero’s on Main Street. Revelry continued deep into the night at Las Vegas Tao’s pop-up club, which transforms an underground parking lot into a late night hot spot.
The iPhone app “Everest” heralded the “Everest Mansion” up the mountain, which, among other events, hosted a one a.m. after party for KINK where James Franco and Christina Voros celebrated with Emile Hirsch, Paul Rudd, Mekhi Phifer and many others until close to dawn.
The Sunday schmooze started early at the UK Film Brunch at the High West Distillery. The networking continued at the Deluxe Cocktail party at Riverhorse on Main Street.
Hollywood’s most powerful agencies vied for attention Sunday night with competing parties. WME hosted a packed event upstairs at Wahso while CAA took over the Claim Jumper.
Thursday night took us out of Park City to the Middle Eastern Filmmaker’s reception at the Casa Nova mansion in Deer Valley, which especially recognized THE SQUARE and its makers, who risked so much to bring this story to light.
The jOBS after party was the centerpiece of Friday night. Held in a converted loft space, it was attended by the film’s enthusiastic cast, crew and talent, including director Joshua Michael Stern, writer Matt Whitely, and star Ashton Kutcher.
The last party of the festival is, of course, the Awards, which take over the entire Basin Recreation Field House. Hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this Academy Awards of independent film featured delicious food, music, a wellpaced award ceremony, and dancing and partying late into the night.
Panels and Installations
Sundance continues its tradition of assembling excellent panels and presentations. There are several ticketed largescale panels in the Egyptian Theater, this year including subjects such as “Science and Cinema” and “The Power of Story.” But some of the most engaging conversations with filmmakers take place in the free daily 10 a.m. Cinema Cafe presentations in the Filmmakers Lodge. These are community-rich occasions. Attendees bring in coffee and tea from the adjacent Lounge and panelists are generally available for casual conversations after the formal discussion ends.
This year panelists included David Seidler (THE KING’S SPEECH), Robin Swicord (THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON), Dave Grohl (SOUND CITY), and many others.
And many days, in the Filmmakers Lodge, at 1 p.m. there are special subject panels such as “Turning the Tide” about films and social change with Gael García Bernal (WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL?, NO), Jehane Noujaim (THE SQUARE), and Robert Reich (INEQUALITY FOR ALL), Free and open to all, New Frontier is a social and creative space that showcases non-narrative storytelling, media installations and multimedia performances.
This year there was a total immersion film NORTH OF SOUTH, WEST OF EAST projected on all four walls of a room, and CORAL: REKINDLING VENUS. Viewed in a portable dome by twelve people at a time lying on their backs, it takes participants deep under the ocean to see the amazing effects of the planet Venus on the life of coral. Following Sundance the show will tour planetariums around the country.
John Cooper, festival director, says that every year after, and only after, films have been selected on merit, themes emerge. This year they were: sexuality and social protest.
Sexually Themed Films
Redford said that when he started acting in the 60s movies mainly showed sexuality wrapped in romance, which reflected the perceptions of the day, but that now, with the internet and people texting instead of dating, sexuality was more matter-of-fact and open, and Sundance’s selections reflected that trend. Or, as Meryl Streep’s daughter Mamie Gummer, co-star of THE LIFEGUARD, was quoted as saying “Sex is trendy.”
This, after all, is the festival were Steven Soderbergh became
famous when SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE screened in 1989. But there does seem to be a different attitude towards sex in film these days, perhaps because of the internet, or just the cultural cycle that led from the sensuality of Regency England to Victorian uptightness, or the repression of the fifties to the liberality of the sixties.
For example, at the midnight screening of KINK, directed by Christina Voros and produced by James Franco, “the true story of sex, submission, and big business as seen through the eyes of the unlikely pornographers of Kink. com,” grandmotherly and grandfatherly locals seemed comfortable mixing with the twenty-something bi-coastal crowd for this graphic documentary of the BDSM porn industry — and staying for the Q&A.
James Franco and Sundance favorite-son Joseph Gordon- Levitt are at the forefront of this change. Franco was involved in three sexually charged films at Sundance this year — INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR, as director, producer and actor; KINK as Producer; and LOVELACE, playing Hugh Hefner.
In INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR Franco speaks passionately of his desire to break free of the sexual attitudes and taboos he internalized growing up. Inspired by the forty minutes of graphic footage rumored to have been cut from William Friedkin’s 1980 film CRUISING, Franco collaborated with San Francisco filmmaker Travis
Matthews to imagine their own lost footage. They set out to make a film which was “a provocative exploration of the importance of the radical and transgressive in society” and so is more about the complex subtexts of INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR, then about the lost footage. The film is a mixture of the seemingly spontaneous and the scripted, creating deliberate discomfort and confusion in the audience as it blurs the lines between what emotions the actors are simulating and what they are truly feeling.
In DON JON’S ADDICTION, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a fitness obsessed New Jersey Roman Catholic addicted to internet porn. He says he wanted to raise awareness of the growing incomprehension between young men consuming graphic pornography and young women consuming romantic comedies, and does so with wit and skill in this impressive writing/directing debut.
Another noteworthy film is KILL YOUR DARLINGS starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg, and Dane Dehaan as the Byronic friend who introduces him to fellow Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs and helps him come to terms with his homosexuality, leading to what some critics are calling “Harry Potter’s gay kiss.” Both Daniel Radcliffe’s and Dane Dehaan’s acting is superb throughout the film.
If You Go Next Year
If you’re a skier, you’ll be in heaven. With all the accommodations full of festival goers, the slopes are always wide open. For immediate gratification, it’s as easy as getting on the Town Lift at the bottom of Main Street and riding it to the top of Park City Mountain Resort. Deer Valley, known for its perfectly groomed slopes and great food, is a short shuttle ride or drive away. We enjoyed a full venison lunch for the price of a deli sandwich before going out for some wonderful glade skiing.
While there is a shuttle bus to the major venues, a car is highly recommended. Parking is a challenge, but if you plan ahead you can purchase in and out privileges for the central parking garage online two months ahead of the festival.
With the ever increasing prominence of Sundance, accommodation prices have become what a friend calls “surreal.” The best bet is to share a condo with a group. You can search for more affordable condos on sites such as Homeaway.com, AirBnB, and Craigslist. But be sure to book your condo at least six months ahead. By the end of September the choice is limited, and expensive.
If you’re going at the last minute, consider the second half of the festival. Most of the Hollywood elite come only for the opening weekend, and later in the festival there is greater ticket availability, as well as a chance of more reasonably priced last-minute accommodations
Having a pass will greatly enrich your festival experience. The most affordable option is the $200 I.D. pass which gives you access to festival-sponsored lounges, panels, and venues, and helps in getting access to some of the parties. This compares with the $5,000 A pass which gives unlimited access to films on the opening weekend.
If you buy the I.D. pass, tickets may be bought online, both in ten ticket packages, which give you earlier and greater choice of films, or individually. To buy tickets or passes online you first need to register for a purchase timeslot. This year registration was for three weeks beginning on September 18th, so if you’re interested be sure to mark your calendar.
Sundance will be held next year from January 16th to 26th.
Andrew Arthur and James Patton are principals in EarthHart Productions, Ltd., a film production company with the mission of creating films which support individual rights and people’s connection with the natural world.