They want to rebrand – or perhaps reboot – the Sundance Film Festival this year. Which is why, when you sit in one of the theaters waiting for a film to start, you get a shimmering display that looks like LED lights, which occasionally coalesce into words to reveal the festival’s message in what are meant to be Jenny Holzer-like epigrams:
“This is cinematic rebellion.”
“This is the renewed rebellion.”
“This is the rebirth of the battle for brave new ideas.”
What are they rebelling against? Well, as Marlon Brando said in “The Wild One,” “What have you got?”
Yes, Sundance has a new artistic director this year. Programmer John Cooper has succeeded Geoff Gilmore who spent decades in the job and oversaw the rise and fall of independent film from “sex, lies, & videotape” to “Precious” and “(500) Days of Summer.”
Cooper and his crew have been vocal about their impulse to go back to the festival’s original impulse: to nurture the artist with an independent vision, to work outside the mainstream, to support filmmakers who are willing to push the envelope.
Which means that this rebellious new Sundance attitude may also signal Sundance’s first video-on-demand festival – because, essentially, that’s where way more of Sundance’s best movies are going to wind up, instead of being snatched up for theatrical release.
Oh, sure, there will be Sundance films that find their way into theaters, but the days of the mega-bucks Sundance sale – or sales – seems distinctly in the past. Ten years ago, even five years ago, films that played at Sundance could expect to find their way into theaters within a few months or by the end of that year. And that includes even less commercial fare such as David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s “Suture” or Rebecca Miller’s “Personal Velocity.” There are still worthy films from Sundance 2009 – films with big stars in them like “The Greatest” and “I Love You, Philip Morris” – that are awaiting release, more than a year later.
But this year, Sundance actually has a section devoted to three films that will begin airing in video-on-demand venues the same day that they play in Park City. “Experience the Sundance Film Festival from your living room!” read one press release I received.
Once upon a time, a timely and provocative political documentary such as Michael Winterbottom’s film of Naomi Klein’s book, “The Shock Doctrine,” could count on a theatrical release in, at minimum, Manhattan. No more. Now it’s part of Sundance Selects’ program of films released straight to your home distribution system. It’s a symptom of where the economics of independent film have gone – and perhaps the thing that will help take the taint off the tag “straight to home video.”
It’s hard to imagine that Cooper’s other innovation – the “Next” series, films made on a shoestring by filmmakers with enthusiasm, if not necessarily story-telling skill – will result in the films actually being seen outside of Sundance. Unless, again, some video-on-demand concern pays its pittance for them.
A film like Katie Aselton’s “The Freebie” has the potential to break out, because it’s emotionally smart and features strong performances by Dax Shepard and Aselton (star of the FX comedy “The League” who also happens to be Mrs. Mark Duplass). On the other hand, something like Linas Phillips’ virtually unwatchable “Bass Ackwards” barely belongs in a festival, let alone running around loose in public where a real person might buy a ticket to it. And more of these entries resemble Phillips’ effort than Aselton’s.
The unspoken truth at this year’s festival seems to be that there is almost no theatrical market for the artsy and adventurous little narrative film or the hard-hitting doc (at least the ones that aren’t made by Michael Moore). The alumni of last year’s Sundance doc crop – ‘The Cove,” “Crude” and several others – did virtually no business when they reached theaters, despite critical encomiums and massive press.
And what of a little film like “Howl,” which opened the festival last night? This compelling and experimental feature uses actors, animation and archival footage to tell the true story of the battle in a San Francisco court over an obscenity charge against poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” after it was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Light Books.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman initially planned to make the film as a documentary. Instead, they cast James Franco as Ginsberg and Jon Hamm and David Strathairn as the opposing lawyers in the court case. The film blends scenes of Ginsberg being interviewed in New York (with a script based on transcripts of actual interviews) with courtroom sequences (also using actual transcripts).
The Ginsberg interview is punctuated with scenes of Ginsberg and other actors reenacting the memories Ginsberg is talking about – from Ginsberg’s crushes on Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady to his institutionalization to overcome his homosexuality.
They are intercut with a black-and-white sequence of Franco as Ginsberg, reading “Howl” aloud at City Lights Books to an audience, as Ginsberg did. Those scenes are illustrated by animation that captures the sometimes hallucinatory imagery that Ginsberg incorporated.
It’s an imaginative and thoughtful work, one that illuminates a fascinating moment of cultural history and one of America’s great writers. Whether it will appeal to a mass audience – or even an arthouse crowd – is another question altogether. After all, before the screening last night, the directors thanked their producers for allowing them to make “a movie about a poem.” Which is what they’ve done.
Getting the movies made obviously is not the challenge, judging by the thousands of films that are entered in Sundance each year.
Getting the movie released – even in a video-on-demand platform – is the real trick. And doing so while also actually making a living at it? Yikes.
The best art always finds its audience – but there are so many good films that never find distribution that you’ve got to wonder about the kindness of raising the hopes of new filmmakers who may never see a dime from their work – or have the money to make another one.