While the landscape for filmmaking in general—and possibly even more so for indie filmmaking specifically—has changed drastically over the past 20 years or so, you may wonder if film festivals still play an important role in the movement. As the 2016 edition of the Sundance Film Festival gets set to kick off this week (running January 21-31 in Park City, Utah), the answer is a qualified yes.
Festivals don’t play the same role in distribution or acquisition that they once did, but the larger festivals like Sundance have become more important for different reasons. They are now a tribal gathering; they bring attention to indie film (even as that term has even changed as it relates to the business) for a week or two in a way that scattershot marketing throughout the rest of the year or our own short attention spans fails to accomplish.
The name Sundance still holds tremendous sway as well. So even though we get to pick and choose what movies we watch to an even more minute degree than we ever have, and posess the ability to make discoveries on our own, it might still be good for us to step outside of our established tastes every once in a while.
At this point, Sundance is far more than just about watching films. And yes, it may be the stodgiest of the indie film festivals (let’s face it—the film establishment latched onto Sundance long ago), but with that upper crust image comes some of the most important voices in film. It’s sort of like going to a dive bar versus an incredibly hot and trendy nightspot. The dive bar may be funkier and occasionally more interesting, but the trendy nightspot has more impressive scenery. And more of it.
Here are some of the things to watch for at this year’s Sundance Film Festival:
Films in the U.S. Dramatic Category – A great place to catch up and coming filmmakers practice their craft. Some of the films this year that are being talked about include “White Girl,” writer/director Elizabeth Wood’s feature debut. Starring Morgan Saylor, “White Girl” takes on the socio-economic and racial divides that separate different strata in New York. Another film that takes on the ups and downs of a seemingly hedonistic pursuit of life (sometimes to mask the pain of existence) is “Goat,” directed by Andrew Neel (and co-written by Neel, David Gordon Green, and Mike Roberts). “Goat” follows the story of a 19 year old man who, after a devastating assault, enrolls in the same college as his brother. A documentarian at heart, Neel exposes the human need to fit in at all costs and what it means to your soul if you mask the pain with socially decadent behavior.
The Power of Story – Filmmakers gather in various forums to discuss the way that films can change the world, bring people together, or even alert others to issues. Some of the events are for ticketholders only, but some, like the Evolution of Storytelling, are available via streaming at www.sundance.org. Much of this panel discussion will involve how technology has altered and will continue to alter our experience with films. Instead of merely watching movies, we’ve entered into the era of interfacing with our entertainment.
Special Events – Sometimes it’s nice to get a behind the scenes look at films or even enjoy a classic (depending on your definition of the word). Behind the Scenes of Anomalisa presents a screening of this much talked about animated film from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson and starring the voice talents of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, and David Thewlis. There will also be a conversation and Q and A with the filmmakers to follow. The movie follows Michael Stone, a seemingly beaten down man going through the motions of life. He travels to Cincinnati for a convention where he meets Lisa, a sales rep, who may or may not be the key to Michael’s awakening.
If you’re looking for something on the fun side, join indie legend/director Richard Linklater as he provides commentary during a special screening of “Dazed and Confused” at the Egyptian Theater. Moderator Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Up in the Air”) and Linklater will discuss this seminal (Really? Seminal?) coming of age story set on the last day of school at a typical high school in 1976. Made in 1993, many of the actors who were little known at the time went on to major stardom, while others seemingly peaked right here. Sort of like high school. A leering Matthew McConaughey launched a thousand imitations with his classic line, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” Cinematic gold.
As Sundance approaches its fortieth anniversary, the size and breadth of its program is what still separates it from other festivals. The programs and films listed above are just a sampling. If you’re attending the festival, there are always plenty of workshops and Q and A sessions that fit almost any interest when it comes to filmmaking.
It’s also a great place to take stock of the industry and what you expect of it. So while there is plenty of self-congratulatory film business shenanigans to go around, there are also plenty of things to enjoy for even the most jaded of filmgoer.