January 12, 2016
The Sundance film festival is many things. First and foremost, it’s the premier independent film festival in the world. A place where thousands of filmmakers submit their films in the hopes of making it into one of the few screenings at the famed Eccles theatre, which could turn them from nobody to the next Soderbergh or Tarantino. The chances of getting in are still insanely remote. In 2015, 2,309 feature length films were submitted and only 79 were selected, with only 16 of those getting dramatic competition slots; 3.4 percent and .7 percent, respectively. It’s a lottery ticket, a badge of honor and a filmmaking crucible. It maintains it status as the thing that young filmmakers dream about growing up and a premier destination where new artists are discovered year in, year out.
However, it’s also not that at all.
In the past decade or so, it’s morphed into a whole other beast. The film-festival portion of Sundance has become minimized and given way to massive corporate sponsorships, parades of celebrities donning parkas and braving the cold in hopes of being seen with the hip, indie crowd. There is a sense that it has lost touch with its roots, where a filmmaker from the middle-of-nowhere Midwest can make a movie with his friends and somehow get seen in Park City. But now nearly every dramatic feature in competition has big actors in the main roles and costs millions to make.
It’s tough to feel like Sundance is still that indie darling when corporate giants like Airbnb, DirecTV, Don Julio, YouTube, Adobe, and Samsung will have their names plastered everywhere. That’s not to mention all the other parties and events that are thrown on a daily and nightly basis for the rich film industry and tech millionaires who go to Sundance every year without watching a single film. It’s become a place to be seen, a place to network and make deals, a place to associate with the dream of independent film while never actually participating or supporting it. It’s a place where independent film is fetishized and commodified by those who have no interest in its well-being or longevity.
I haven’t been to Sundance for more than six years. I, too, grew up dreaming the Sundance dream. I’d watch all the films I could get my hands on that came out of the festival, when (if) they eventually got distributed to my local indie theatre or video store. So, when I was older and in grad school, I went just for the experience. It’s tough to get into screenings — you have to wait in lines for hours if you don’t have a coveted pass that lets you into any screening you want — and it’s expensive to attend. But there is something in the air there, something intangible and electric. It’s a really exciting place to be. As time went on, though, it became more of a hassle to go — and less appealing, as it felt like the festival slipped away from its roots.
This year I’m going back.
There’s a few reasons for this. First, I think it’s really easy to become cynical about a thing changing and evolving. Just because the festival has become corporatized and glamorous for celebrities to attend does not make it inherently bad. There’s probably a little bit of that punk-rock teenager in me that bristles against such things. However, what that scope and corporate support actually means is that Sundance is able to support filmmakers and artists of all kinds, on an even larger scale. It’s no longer just about dramatic feature films submitted to competition. It’s become a showcase for writers, directors, new technologies, virtual reality, experimental film, video installations, documentaries, animation, video games, commercial, music videos and more. It’s a place where new artists of all types are nurtured and questions are asked about the way we craft and tell stories across all mediums and platforms.
Right now, Sundance is probably the most interesting place in the world to experience the cutting edge of virtual reality. Every major artist, recent work, and new technology is all on display in one singular location. Outside of the more hardware/software-focused CES, Sundance is the only place where you can feel filmmakers probing the new language of VR, asking questions about how we tell stories in such a nascent language. VR is going to have huge implications for the content we create and consume in the next five years, and I feel like I need to immerse myself in it to understand it better. What better place than Sundance? There are also countless sidebars of up-and-coming music video directors and commercial directors. Artists who are at the forefront of content creation, pushing boundaries and coming up with fresh new ideas for what content can and should be.
The main reason, though, is that it’s tough to be in the presence of great art these days. At its core, Sundance will always be a place where artists showcase their art. It’s a concentrated, dense center of the visual storytelling universe. And no matter the celebrity distraction, there will always be insanely talented filmmakers and inspiring works to experience. It’s a place where I can go to nourish my soul and feel good about the state of art being created in the word. I can feel excited about what’s on the horizon and emboldened by the challenging stories being told. I may have to sift through some chaff, but it is a place to go to get revitalized.
It’s important to be in the know about what’s next, but for me personally, it’s bigger than that. I need to be reinvigorated about the state of art. Experiencing films and encountering great new artists at Sundance, in a small way, makes me feel better about the world I live in.
January 12, 2016