Dear Sundance Diary: Times Are Grim, But the Hype is Here

Park City was eerily peaceful early this morning with nobody around and last night’s dusting of snow on the ground. Soon enough – by this afternoon, or this evening, or certainly tonight – that will all change as filmmakers, press and industry folks roll in and the dreaded promoters (“leveragers,” Sundance founder Robert Redford called them in his inaugural address today) pimp out this snowy mountain town like a toddler in a tiara. Appropriately, Redford pointed to the current hardships for filmmakers, and the world at large. “Times are hard and grim,” he acknowledged, later offering optimism. “Independent film is healthy. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

As the Sundance Film Festival grew beyond its humble origins, so too did the hype in and around town. Navigating the festival is an exercise in navigating hype. Pick up a hot tip on a buzz film while shuttling around town; pick up free crap you know you’ll never need from swag marketers hungry for exposure. Either way it’s a circus, and the energy is palpable: No one wants to miss anything, but there’s always something (or many somethings) that you necessarily must.

Redford addressing Sundance’s hype problem is nothing new – he’s been battling Sundance’s other rep for years, and with mixed feelings about the exposure swag houses and celebrity sightings and exclusive parties bring.

“Success has two sides to it,” he admitted during the opening day press conference. “For example, hype… I’m not going to condone that, and I’m not going to criticize it, because some of that is good for the filmmakers as long as they can keep their head about it.” But really, can you blame those struggling first-time indie filmmakers for stopping off for free snow boots and sunglasses when they haven’t seen, and maybe never will see, a dime for their passion projects?

On the other hand, even established filmmakers need hype. Spike Lee and Stephen Frears are both here this year with new films seeking distribution (Lee’s Red Hook Summer and Frears’ Lay the Favorite). Oscar-winning fest veteran James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim) is back, this time with the narrative feature Shadow Dancer, a drama-thriller starring Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen. They’ll be jockeying for that coveted intangible – buzz – throughout the next ten days, up against a vast variety of films equally desperate, if not more, for the spotlight.

So here’s a selection of what’s caught my eye at the outset: The host of films from returning recent Sundance darlings, including Elizabeth Olsen in Liberal Arts, her Martha Marcy May Marlene crew with Simon Killer, Brit Marling in Arbitrage, and John Hawkes in The Surrogate; the influx of hip-hop related offerings, like the girl MC narrative Filly Brown, Ice-T’s rap documentary Something from Nothing, the short Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke – a twist on La Jetee starring Uncle Luke of 2 Live Crew, of course – and LUV, starring rapper-turned-actor Common; docs like Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War and the Peter Jackson-supported West of Memphis; and genre offerings including the horror anthology V/H/S, Compliance, co-starring Innkeepers standout Pat Healy, Katie Aselton’s Black Rock, and Gareth Evans’ excellent Indonesian martial arts pic The Raid (which I’ve already seen and would gladly see again and can’t recommend highly enough).

Check back daily as I file Sundance diaries from here in Park City, where I aim to track the trends and the buzz and yes, the hype. Follow and tweet questions to me at @Movieline and @jenyamato, and help me search for the answers to the biggest questions of Sundance 2012. Like, who’s got a +1 to the Drake show?

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[Photo credit: Getty Images]



Comments

  • MartiniShark says:

    I actually harbor some cautious optimism towards the fest this year. Despite a dismal economy last year saw a surprising slate of purchases, and some pretty impressive releases throughout the calender. That's been lacking.

    • Jen Yamato says:

      I suppose it also depends on what you're being optimistic about -- the discovery of great films period, or the discovery of great films that can then perform in the marketplace and in theatrical release...

      • MartiniShark says:

        For me it is the latter, but that's because I have to rely on the marketplace to see most of the titles. The fact so many great discoveries performed well this year bodes well for more of the same. I prefer to see the quality in a theater over DVD.

  • Jake says:

    Looking forward to hearing your commentary, Jen. Hope you find some good films.

    I have been so disappointed in Sundance narratives for the last ten years or so. But particularly in the last five years. There are so many boring narratives and boring filmmakers who get to play films there. The docs are great. The midnight schlock is often very enjoyable. The foreign films tend to be good (particularly those from Korea, Japan, China, etc.) But I'm tired of all these lame touchy feely dramas or weak quirky comedies in the Sundance dramatic competition section. There hasn't been a big film to come out of that grouping since about 04 with Napoleon Dynamite or maybe Garden State. And even those weren't some kind of amazing films, they just performed okay at the box office. Lately, it's just a snooze fest. (I'm probably forgetting some big film since then, but I think the general reality is that the narratives from Sundance have been getting worse and worse.)

    And another thing, we haven't found a PT Anderson or a Tarantino in ages. Would be nice to have an exciting filmmaker come out of Sundance who shows some real promise.

    Maybe this year will be different.

    Hopefully.

    • Jen Yamato says:

      Agreed. I tend towards the genre stuff personally but am hoping for discoveries in the dramatic programs, and by this time I think we can reasonably expect great things from the doc field. Fingers crossed!

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