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Imitations flatter while finding fault with Sundance

Web posted on:
Wednesday, January 27, 1999 9:26:35 AM EST

From Correspondent Paul Clinton

In this story:

(CNN) -- Clearly, Park City, Utah, was more than due for some crowd relief, and Sundance was due for some competition: More than 12,000 extra people, including filmmakers, studio executives, film lovers and members of the media, have crammed into the mountain town for Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival, which began January 21 and continues through the 31st.

In 1989 the independent film "sex, lies & videotape" became a huge mainstream success, putting Sundance on the map. Now the world invades this small skiing town every January, looking for the next potential cinematic goldmine.

But while the crowds attending this "festival of festivals" grow, it also becomes harder and harder for some filmmakers to get their work into the festival. So, alternative venues have become established. There is Slam Dunk, which will feature 13 films this year; Souldance, films by women and minority filmmakers; and No Dance, which is geared towards technology. There is also Lapdance, but more about that later.

British filmmaker Peter Baxter, president of the Slamdance Film Festival

But the biggest and most established is Slamdance, founded in 1994. This grassroots alternative to the Sundance Festival -- organizers call it "the film festival by filmmakers, for filmmakers" -- is screening 14 feature films and 4 short programs this year. Twenty-five percent of Slamdance movies are on videotape this year, only 10 percent last year, and out of the 13 films they showed last year, five got distributed. Though the festival has produced no major hits yet, they did get some distributed.

In fact, one of Slamdance's entries from last year, "20 Dates," is being released by Fox Searchlight on February 26. Also this past Sunday, January 24, Zeitgeist Films picked up the North American rights to "Following," a Slamdance film by Christopher Nolan. Zeitgeist plans its release in 1999.

British filmmaker Peter Baxter is the president of the Slamdance Film Festival. Of the fest's origins, he says it was basically "born out of rejection when a group of filmmakers turned up at Park City and their films had been rejected by the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, and at that time if you didn't get into Sundance it was basically a nail in your coffin." So Slamdance was born.

Sundance wasn't happy. "They'd gone up there and spent a lot of time and energy in setting up the festival so it's quite understandable," Baxter says, "we were absolutely riding on the coattails of Sundance. But during the course of time, it's become a little bit more settled. We have found our focus and I think Sundance has sort of shifted a bit towards middle market."

Illeana Douglas appears in the Sundance offering "Happy, Texas"

Sundance maintains alternatives not needed

Nicole Guillemet is the co-director of the Sundance Film Festival and vice president of the Sundance Institute. She agrees thatSundance has changed, but maintains the festival's main purpose is still intact.

"When Hollywood came and said, 'Oh my God, they're talented, we need to go,' that started a new evolution of the festival and really from there it evolved every year more and more. But," she adds, "we are about independent films, we are about independent filmmakers and we intend to stay that way." Sixty-one of the 114 films showing at Sundance this year are helmed by first-time directors.

However, budgets for Sundance entries can soar up into the $5 million and sometimes $10 million range, and some movies come into the festival with distribution deals already in place.

Baxter claims budget and distribution are the two biggest differences between the two festivals. "Usually," he says, "our films are made for well under $500,000. We have two films in competition which are under $10,000 dollars, and they're features." Also, in order to qualify for Slamdance, the films must never have been in competition before, and they must be made by first-time directors.

Actress/director Illeana Douglas has appeared in numerous independent films. Her latest movie, "Happy, Texas," also stars William H. Macy. In fact "Happy, Texas" is currently enjoying a lot of interest at Sundance. Reportedly Miramax/Buena Vista, New Line and Paramount are bidding for this off-centered comedy.

"This is now the third time I'm going to be there." Douglas said in an interview in Los Angeles before the festival began. "For me, it's been really a great experience ... I see a lot of my friends."


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However, when it comes to film festivals, Douglas isn't too keen on the idea of "the more the merrier." She says, "all these movies are not great movies, let's be frank. I try and see as many movies as I can see, but anyone knows -- who goes to a festival -- knows these aren't all brilliant filmmakers here.

"Why do we need all these festivals?" she asks. "If you don't get into Sundance, you know, tough! Sour grapes! Go home and try again."

British actor Tim Roth, who is trying to find distribution for his directorial debut, "War Zone," at Sundance, is more philosophical about its satellite festivals than Douglas. "Slamdance was supposed to be hard-core, dead against the powers and the authorities," he says, "and now that's being absorbed in, so now you have the new ones coming up."

Lapdance founder: No end in sight for new festivals

Which brings us to the aforementioned Lapdance, a one-day event showcasing three short movies, founded by film producer Jason McHugh. "We're definitely not anti-Sundance, I can say that," he says. "We're just happy to be a part of what now is a festival of festivals. And I think the fact that Sundance has been such an independent institution that sort of burgeoned over, and the fact is that it's not as independent as it used to be, because now it's sort of like a Hollywood marketplace."

McHugh sees no end in sight for new festivals. "Slamdance came about, then Scumdance," he says, "and Sleazedance, and Son-of-Samdance, and now Lapdance. Possibly even square dance is going to be out there."

He thinks the dawn of more independent festivals is just beginning. "Film festivals," he says, "used to be an essential way for filmmakers to get the word out and meet people in Hollywood, and a way for them to receive attention. But I think with the underground film festival scene that's proving itself in Park City, I think that's slowly becoming outdated.

"People are finding new ways to make their own festivals, and finding ways to reach the greater masses with their own movies. That's something we're definitely going to be highlighting in Lapdance, is that there are means for self-distribution through emerging technology, that time has arrived. So, you know it's just like, it's proving that the spirit of independents is staying alive whether it's being supported by the Sundance institution or now by Park City in general."

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the Comedy Central cartoon "South Park"

'South Park' creators say no edge to Sundance

"South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are college buddies of McHugh and have a short film headlining at Lapdance. They think the Sundance Festival has lost its edge. "Sundance is the ultimate gimmick," says Parker, "there is nothing independent or artistic about it and it's ridiculous." Parker claims there's only one true purpose for film festivals, "look, we all like movies, we're all in entertainment. We all like getting drunk. Let's hire some strippers, get some beer and party."

Both Stone and Parker are somewhat bitter about their first Sundance experience seven years ago. Their movie, "Cannibal The Musical," didn't make the cut back in 1992. But they went to the festival anyway, with film in hand (and have continued to do so ever since).

Stone describes their first time at the Sundance Festival, when they were looking for someone to help them get their first movie out to the mass market. "It was great," he says, "if we thought, 'Well, maybe some cool lawyer from L.A. or something is going to like this movie and think we're talented and give us a shot at a meeting with so and so, and then we can talk about something else.'

"But you're not thinking, 'This is the deal. I want this, and this is how I want to distribute it.' You're just -- you made your little painting and you want to put it up on the wall for a minute." Adds Parker, "And that's what Sundance is suppose to be -- your outlet to do it, and that's the big joke. It isn't and now the only place to really go watch independent movies is at colleges."

The film the duo are showing at Lapdance this year was originally destined for Sundance -- as a joke. The short film is called "Le Petite Package," and they shot it on weekends while they were writing the pilot episode for "South Park."

"It was made as a big middle finger to Sundance," say Stone. "We wanted to suck people in with French subtitles and a serious subject matter," says Parker, "Yeah, we were sick of their French films too."

Stone continues, "then it would just digress into absurdity. We just wanted to submit it to them so they had to watch it." As it turns out, "Le Petite Package" is a film featuring Matt's penis.

But, in the beginning there was Sundance, which remains the premier place for new filmmakers to get noticed by Hollywood, the most fickle entity in the world. And Guillenet, co-director of the festival, continues to defend her institution.

"In the 1970s, the notion of independent film was barely getting there, it was not defined," she says, "and Robert Redford started this institute in 1981 with that in mind." Now, with the new spate of film festivals, independent films have been defined again and again, and the definition keeps evolving.

At the end of the day, constant change and evolution are been what filmmaking has been all about since Thomas Edison first beamed light through a piece of celluloid.

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