Wrapping up Sundance 2012 – Part 2

January 31, 2012

Just when I thought I was done with Sundance, I get a comment from a reader posing several questions that seem not only thoughtful but relevant. So allow me to take up one more column here to answer them.

The reader’s name is Dennis Hermanson, from Hillsborough, N.C., and he refers to himself as “a guy who loves film, and has never been” to Sundance. Responding to my description of my Sundance experience – in which I seemed to spend all my time either watching movies or in line to watch movies – he asks: “Why can’t you see the films in a way that allows you to study them? Or is the audience an integral part of the commercial aspects of the event itself?” And then he adds: “It just seems that serious film critics/writers such as yourself are really put through a wringer, almost on purpose.”

The idea of studying a film while watching it for review seems a little foreign, if by studying, he means taking the time to watch it over and over or to examine and reexamine key scenes. I’ve always felt that the critic should write a film review from a viewing experience comparable to what the audience will see. In other words, most people who buy a movie ticket don’t see the movie twice – or stop, rewind and restart on a DVD – when they see it.

Ideally, the critic is watching with the same intensity of purpose as the filmmaker had when he was making the film. I didn’t agree with the late Pauline Kael about much, but I did concur when I heard her say one time that she never sees a movie twice before reviewing it because the audience doesn’t have that opportunity. Hopefully, my review is describing my experience in a way that’s helpful for the viewer.

As for watching with an audience, well, I’m not reviewing the audience. I can only write about my reaction – not the audience’s. Film companies seem to believe that forcing critics to see their films at “all-media” screenings – in which critics watch the film with ordinary film-goers who got free tickets to see an advance showing – will somehow change the way a critic experiences a film. It doesn’t.

At Sundance (or Toronto, for that matter), I’m either seeing a film in a theater full of press and industry people or with a festival audience. And those audiences can be as sophisticated – and as harsh – as any group of critics.

And “put through the wringer”? Well, that’s the nature of a festival, in a sense, whether it’s a music festival – with one act after another – or a theater festival, with one play after another. The idea is to immerse yourself in the work; hopefully, the good ones stick with you and the bad ones don’t.

Dennis also asks: “Would you get on a … list and get or download copies of all the films without going to Sundance if you could?”

To be honest, yes. If someone offered to let me stream all the Sundance films I wanted to see in the privacy and comfort of my home – without the expense and trouble of travel/hotels/meals during a week out of town – I’d jump at the chance. It’s about the movies, after all – about watching the films that will be part of the cultural conversation in the year to come.

What would I miss if I could do it that way? Well, there’s the convivial atmosphere of conversation with colleagues, the give-and-take about which films to see and which ones to skip, the professional networking that’s always part of such an event. Still, while I’m all for the communal experience of sharing a movie with a room full of strangers, I can’t deny the appeal of the convenience of having my own little film festival at home.

He also asks: “Will Sundance exist in 25 years? Is it ‘Cannes in the Mountains,’ a ‘you gotta be there’ experience for folks such as you, the seasoned professionals of film study?”

I seldom try to predict the future. But as for the “you gotta be there” experience, whether you’re a professional or just a film buff, I will say that there’s nothing quite like seeing a great movie for the first time with an enthusiastic audience. But I don’t necessarily have to spend a snowy week in Utah to have that experience.

His final question was: “What about all those great films that you saw that were overlooked at Sundance?”

To which I have to say: Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the independent film scene today. I personally believe – and feel that experience has shown me – that the cream rises to the top. Good work will be seen.

And yet there are so many films being made – and so many fewer theatrical opportunities for them – that the pipeline for good work has narrowed to the point of being choked.

The one bright spot is the video-on-demand market, which is becoming the release venue for more and more films that come away from film festivals without theatrical distribution deals. Sundance Selects, Tribeca Films, IFC – all of these offer a way for smaller films to find their way from festivals to the wider audience.

It’s a dual-edged sword, however. On the one hand, on-demand means that arthouse films can reach a much larger audience than they ever could in theaters. There are wide swaths of this country that don’t have theaters playing artier, riskier films; but almost everyone now has access to cable or satellite transmission, through which these films are available.

On the other hand, these films still have to shake the stigma of “straight to video,” because critics tend to ignore movies that debut in the on-demand realm. It’s a form of prejudice that is slowly – very slowly – being broken down.

Thus endeth the sermon – and the 2012 Sundance coverage.

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