As a legal and tax paying Utah resident, I put up with a lot of abuse. Rage-inducing driving, bitter cold winters and heaps of condescending “You live in Utah!?” mockery. But when January rolls around and the Sundance Film Festival turns Park City into a sea of furry boots, big-ass sunglasses and drunken, star-watching revery, I get a little slice of vindication when the fun is only an hour drive away, as opposed to a plane flight and hotel stay.
This year’s Sundance has attempted a thematic return to its film-making roots, with purists shunning the gaudy party scene and glittery spectacle and attempting to bring attention to the documentary. Redford even proclaimed it so in his opening remarks: "By opening the festival with this film, we really are making a statement about the importance of documentaries." However, despite Robert Redfords attempts to keep the Hollywood out of the Dance, the headlines streaming from the festival center less on filmcraft and more on the gobsmacking sums of coin being levied by studios doing battle over the “it” films they’ve just viewed.
Fox Searchlight, for one, is on a buying frenzy. They’ve shelled out $10 million (1/3 of the total buys so far) between two films: domestic “that boy is a terror!” thriller Joshua and Keri Russell starrer Waitress. Both were picked up for $4-5 million a piece. The big news today is the sale of Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow (a film I’ll be seeing tonight). The film, which probably encapsulates a part of our youth in the 80s, centers on a l’il guy who discovers movies, friendship and sweet ways to draw people being killed through seeing First Blood (aka- Rambo). Machinated to enter Sundance in an effort to escalate the sale price of the project, Rambow did just that, racking up a bidding war that reached $7.5 million. The dust is settling and it looks like Par Vantage (Paramount’s indie label) has won the rights.
In the mean time, documentaries, which play a large part at Sundance, are left holding the mic in an empty room full of scattered papers, empty popcorn containers and the absence of a buying studio (with few exceptions like Murderball). While the goal of the festival is not only to cultivate and get independent film out to a wider audience, it also offers the opportunity to respect and view film as an art amongst other cinefiles and the gifted and creative people who make them—all away from the 86 screen massiveplexes and their posters for Epic Movie and Codename: The Cleaner.
While many could argue that’s exactly what the bidding wars are doing (and it’s not anything new at the festival)- getting small films out to a wider audience, the meat market atmosphere of the bid wars seem less about the film and "spirit" of Sundance and more about how much money a piece of work can make the studio. While that’s just business as usual, and I’m no film snob (after all, I’m not signed up to attend any documentaries this year), there is a whiff of sadness to it all.
Just ask the documentarians.