Tuesday, January 25, 2011

That Old Sundance Feeling

In its second season, "Entourage" -- the male fantasy-fulfillment series centered around fictional young actor Vincent Chase -- aired an episode where Vince and his, well, entourage pay a visit to the renowned Sundance Film Festival. That episode got me thinking about the state of that particular fest; specifically how it was no longer as exciting and central to American cinema as it had once been.

That "Entourage" episode aired in 2005. In the ensuing five years, Sundance has not significantly turned its fortunes around. It remains a largely uneventful annual gathering in which filmmakers, film enthusiasts and the entertainment news media participate out of sheer habit.


When Sundance rose to prominence in the early '90s, it shone a light on the kind of movies that a weary public had been missing. For some 20 years, Hollywood had been seemingly incapable of making simple human dramas. Even the quaintest little concept would bloat into some $80 million star vehicle, boring critics and leaving audiences apathetic to mildly satisfied.

Sundance changed all that. Sundance showed us what could be done with just a few thousand dollars, some clever innovation, and an irrational amount of determination.

It was a truly exciting time to be a film lover -- a latter generation's version of the '70s New Wave. With impossibly small budgets, filmmakers were forced to do away with exotic locations and eye-popping special effects. The films instead relied on clever concepts, strong characters, deeper psychology, unique pacing, interesting stories. This is how we got sex, lies, and videotape, Reservoir Dogs, Do the Right Thing, The Crying Game, The Piano, Sling Blade, Swingers, The Blair Witch Project, Memento... and I'm barely scratching the surface.

It gave us new stars. James Spader, John Turturro, Chloe Sevigny, Benicio Del Toro... again, just scratching the surface.

And of course, it gave us the superstar directors; often writer-directors. The Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Bryan Singer, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino; the list goes on...

And then there was Kevin Smith.


Kevin Smith became an instant hero to a generation of wannabe filmmakers by self-financing his first feature, Clerks, with a dozen maxed-out credit cards, and eventually selling the picture to a hesitant Miramax. The film became controversial when its original NC-17 rating was appealed down to an R without any changes being made.

Smith's hero status has seen its shares of ups and downs through years, but he's always maintained an enthusiastic fan base bolstered primarily by his early adoption of new media. He was a blogger before the word "blog" existed. He opened comic book stores and staffed them with friends who have appeared in his movies, basically so that fans could interact with the Askewniverse. He became a popular public speaker on the college circuit and beyond. He was among the first celebrity podcasters. He's currently one of the most popular Twitter users.

Through it all, Smith has maintained a public persona of being "one of us." He's nothing but a big fan of movies, just like the rest of us. But since he's on the inside, he's delighted to show us what it's like. His success is our success. He kicked the door down so we could get a glimpse of how the other side lives.

While Smith was busy exploring other avenues in his career, independent cinema busied itself with getting bought up or otherwise co-opted by the Hollywood establishment. "Independent film" came to be understood as a genre -- characterized by its quirkiness and low-budget aesthetic (if not always an actual low budget) -- rather than what it's supposed to mean: a movie produced without the financial or institutional resources of a studio. Think Little Miss Sunshine -- low budget and quirky, but still produced under the umbrella of 20th Century Fox. How is that independent?

The Sundance Film Festival used to be a place of discovery. Films and filmmakers and actors that nobody had ever heard of now had a forum to prove their mettle. And if their projects were deemed good enough, studios would buy them in contentious bidding wars, launching the blessed few to overnight fame and fortune, and delivering to the masses a film unlike any they'd seen before. After independent cinema got eaten up by the studios, Sundance lost its meaning. Now it was a place where "independent films" produced by specialty branches of the major studios were merely premiered and given their first dose of publicity, to be built upon later by massive amounts of marketing dollars. In other words, Sundance became little more than one big advanced marketing convention.

Oh sure, some people are still out there making truly independent films, and those films are still getting screened at Sundance. But nobody talks about them because the studios and distribution companies aren't seeking them out anymore. Any possible noise the true indies might make gets drowned out by the publicity machine of the big studios debuting their low budget efforts.

So when news started trickling out of Sundance this past weekend that Kevin Smith was making waves, I was skeptical. When was the last time anything truly surprising happened at Sundance?


To bring everyone up to speed, Smith has had a pet project in a holding pattern for a good three years or more called Red State. By all accounts, it's not his usual buddy comedy-style movie. It's a suspense/horror film, with political undertones. Smith showed the script to the Weinsteins -- his champions since the beginning -- fully expecting them to turn it down... which they did. So he went back to his independent roots, producing the movie without any studio support. Then he took the movie to Sundance, just as he did 17 years ago with Clerks. And just like the good old days, he planned to auction distribution rights for the movie there.

At least, that's what he said.

Turns out it was all a publicity stunt. Just as the "auction" was getting underway, Smith told the crowd gathered at the screening that he would self-distribute the film. He'll be taking it on the road for a 15-city tour, with hopes of ultimately opening the movie nationwide -- through his own company -- this October.


The whole auction hoax was a little obnoxious, and has garnered some backlash. There were people there from studios and distribution companies with a mandate to buy films, and Smith robbed them of time they may have better spent watching films that were actually for sale. Would he not have attracted just as much attention if, instead of tricking people into thinking there'd be an auction, he'd simply said that he had a big announcement? People actually listen to Kevin Smith. Use that!

(Smith responds to that criticism.)

But that aside, Smith is doing something innovative and laudable, and it's reminding me of the good old days of Sundance. (Keep in mind that I've never been to the actual festival myself. I'm referring just to the echoes of exciting news and, of course, the films themselves that would roll out from Park City every year when I was a teenager.) Granted, Smith is taking a low-stakes gamble. He's already made his name, already made his fortune, and he can afford to fail if that's what happens. That being said, many filmmakers -- and, hell, many people of any profession -- would not be making such a career overhaul at this stage in their lives. Smith is going on 41, has a wife and a kid, and has firmly established himself in his dream career. Most of us would gladly coast on that for the rest of our lives.

Instead, Smith has found something new to be passionate about, and he's pursuing it with the drive of a 20-year-old dreamer working a shitty job at a convenience store in New Jersey. There's no reason for him to do this except that he really wants to. And that's something I can get behind, cynicism be damned.

(Smith also announced that his next movie, a passion project about hockey, would be his last. But I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up Brett Favre-ing that decision. I wouldn't hold that against him. He's young yet.)

For the first time in a good decade, there's interesting, exciting, unexpected news coming out of Sundance instead of the typical boring promotional routine. And I, for one, am thankful for that.

1 comment:

Grant Donovan said...

I'm a big Smith fan, I listen to his podcasts, I own a lot of his merch and I think that this is a cool moment.
By the same token smith's film's lately are the worst thing about him.
Red state's reviews have been pretty bad...that being said his distribution idea is smart because after his last two studio outings turning in the normal kev smith 30 mil, he could prob do about the same business just by trading on his name or at least enough to recoup the cost of the film and its marketing.
Best case scenario a new viable distribution model arises out of smith's attempt, worst case a few more bad films get made and distributed, so i'm for it.
I'll keep listening to his podcasts b/c he's a funny guy, but his days as a film maker are probably over, because I don't think he has the passion for it anymore.