Sundance Film Festival 2008: Five Key Trends and Must-knows for Indie Directors and Producers

Daniel Lafleche asked:

Copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Lafleche

The Sundance Film Festival, though firmly in its mid-twenties and suffering all the expected crises, is one of the world’s most important cinema venues. It’s been said that what plays well up in the mountains of Park City this year will be trickling into the Hollywood mainstream by the summer after next. If this is true, the 2008 iteration of the festival leaves us with a lot to think about. Here are 5 things to chew on as American movies face what is likely a pivotal year.

5. Trouble in Hollywood is not necessarily good news for indies. At the outset of the festival the Writer’s Guild strike dominated conversation. Prognosticators expected a buying frenzy at Sundance 2008 as studios searched nervously for films to fill their potentially empty release slate. However, at the same time, pundits were quick to point to last year’s rampant overspending and predicted buyers would be cautious.

So, what happened? Not much. After an initial panic, over $25 million worth of deals were inked at Sundance ’08. While this pales compared to the $53 million forked over at Sundance ’07, we can consider 2008 as a return to sanity.

4. Of the 17 films sold at Sundance…8 were documentaries. In fact, all the films to sell in the usually frantic first weekend at Sundance were documentaries, leading many to believe that this year’s marketplace would be a bust. But even if prices were down a bit for dramas, critics and audiences agree that the American documentary is as vital as ever, and even after the disappointing box-office performance of last year’s Sundance docs (MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON) there is still a very healthy market.

3. The Webolution is not being webcast. “The writing is on the wall-the industry must adapt to new media or face extinction. Today’s studios and independents are finally embracing the challenge of porting content and revenue to new distribution strategies. Join Hollywood power brokers and new media superstars to discuss their strategies for the Web.”

That’s from the official Sundance Film Festival Guide and the introduction to the much-buzzed about panel “Webolution!”. Netflix,,,, the MPAA, and MTV were all represented.

Sadly, nothing was solved.

The big take-away: the US needs to do more to inspire the kind of access to high speed internet the rest of the developed world enjoys. Some commentators have said, compared to Europe, Japan, and Korea, the US is a “broadband third world.”

Despite the panel and the panic about the web, this year Sundance is scaling back its online offerings. Its Online Film Festival, launched in 2001, has all but disappeared. In 2007, Sundance’s site offered nearly 50 films continuously over the course of the festival; this year, it’ll show just one for each of the festival’s 10 days.

2. Who really rules Sundance and why is it that no one likes Sony Pictures Classics? There have been rumblings for a number of years now that sales agents (or brokers) might have a little too much pull at Sundance. Dealmakers like Cinetic Media, William Morris, Submarine Entertainment, and the CAA (Creative Agency Artists) come to Sundance to represent filmmakers and to fuel the bidding war furnaces. Does a Cinetic stamp of approval get you into Sundance? Probably not, but the annual Cinetic Sundance Party is definitely where you want to be once you get there.

This year the brokers had Sony Pictures Classics’ number. While Fox Searchlight and Focus films paid the most for films ($10M for HAMLET 2, and $5M for CHOKE, respectively), SPC was the most active, snapping up three dramas this year: FROZEN RIVER (repped by William Morris Agency), BAGHEAD (repped by CAA), and THE WACKNESS (repped by Submarine Entertainment). So why are bloggers up in arms? Sony Pictures Classics has a horrific track record releasing and marketing Sundance films (JUNEBUG, LAYER CAKE, PERSEPOLIS), and it is expected that SPC will fumble these crowd favourites.

This side of Sundance has always received a lot of talk, but this year it seems to be receiving, mainly thanks to the efforts of bloggers, the kind of scrutiny that will help it mature in line with Sundance’s artistic aspirations.

1. New American Realism equals… drugs? For critics, commentators, and most bloggers, there was a lot to celebrate at Sundance 2008. Manohla Dargis (New York Times), tweaked to what she called the “emergence of a new American realism,” praised the Sundance crop this year for pointing a way beyond the twee and solipsistic, the mainstays of Sundance Film Festivals past. But at the same time, Todd McCarthy, in Variety, can’t help but comment on how many films this year feature characters trying, failing, succeeding, or thinking about getting high. American documentaries may be in the midst of a renaissance, and the injustices of the world may call for even closer scrutiny, but the stories America is telling itself seem stranded between a desperate holding tight to the bare bones of experience and the wisps of self-delusion.

The jury prizes went to TROUBLE THE WATER, a staggeringly intimate documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (still unsold as of this writing), and to FROZEN RIVER, a drama about immigrant smuggling across the United States/Canada border (sold to Sony Classics for less than one million). The audience awards went to FIELDS OF FUEL, a documentary abut American addiction to oil (still unsold as of this writing), and to THE WACKNESS, a comedy drama about New York pot dealers (sold to Sony Pictures Classics for less than 2 million).

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