Why Sundance Sucks

a.k.a., How the great festival sold out

Sundance used to be a cool film festival. They showed cutting edge films that were truly different from mainstream fare. The selections weren’t dominated by hype and big names, but were chosen instead based on the quality of the film. None of that is true anymore. No matter what the mainstream press says and how the festival tries to position itself, Sundance is more Hollywood than the Oscars. Quite frankly, Sundance sucks.

The downhill ride started way back in 1992. That year the festival highlighted both Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut, and El Mariachi, the $7000 feature from Robert Rodriguez. Both films were highly touted, especially El Mariachi with its miniscule budget, and both directors eventually went on to fame and fortune. While their stars have faded somewhat since then, the splash their films made at Sundance that year started the downward spiral that the festival has been caught in ever since.

You see, once studios, stars, and distribution companies smelled blood in the water, i.e. money to be made, there was no stopping them. Enter cell phones, mainstream press, and greedy studios, then toss in big headed stars and self-congratulatory filmmakers and you instantly have a recipe for disaster. And the recipe is aptly titled Sell-Out.

That’s the whole problem. Sundance is no longer about the films. It’s more about the filmmakers, the big stars, and the distribution deals. Gone are the days of the “true” independent filmmaker. Anybody that makes a film in their garage, so to speak, has virtually no chance at getting their film shown at the festival. Hell, they barely even have a chance to get their film shown at one of the copy-cat festivals typically hyped as an “alternative” to Sundance.

When you see Sundance profiles in such typically mainstream press outlets such as CNN and Time, it’s obvious the festival has lost its original focus on independent cinema. Honestly, would CNN feature the Sundance Film Festival if all the films selected were by made by nobodies, starring actors that no one had ever heard of? It’s a vicious cycle that will never stop. Sundance whores itself to the press in order to garner publicity, and the press covers the festival because of the recognizable stars. Lose the stars and you lose the press. Lose the press and the festival loses it’s influence. But what is the festival influencing anyway? Sure, they’re making a name for the festival by catering to the likes of Miramax, but at what cost?

I feel sorry for the underground filmmaker who pours his life and blood into a film and actually succeeds in producing a quality piece of work. Often these filmmakers are deluded into thinking their film will be given a fair shake when it comes to getting into Sundance. They foolishly pin their hopes and dreams on making it into the festival and then scoring the big distribution deal you always seem to hear about. There’s no doubt in their mind their film is deserving on merit, and maybe it is, but merit alone is not what drives Sundance.

Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the films showing at this year’s festival, specifically the ones garnering all the buzz and striking the big distribution deals. These films include, The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston, The Dancer Upstairs, directed by John Malkovich, Gerry, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Matt Damon, not to mention films featuring Jason Priestly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Kathy Bates.

Does anybody really think a film made for $50,000 starring no-name actors has a chance? Of course the festival claims its selections are based on merit, but really, who’s kidding who? When some hot-shot agent has a film to push starring Jennifer Aniston, do you honestly think the selection committee has the balls to turn the film away? Hell no, not when the mere mention of Jennifer Aniston in a press release generates a ton of publicity and makes acquisition executives swoon.

It’s all a farce, and in fact, the festival has become a virtual parody of itself, touting it’s integrity and commitment to the filmmakers when it’s all really for sale to the highest bidder. To be honest, I lost interest in the films shown at Sundance long ago. I could care less which films generate the most buzz and which ones get sold in multi-million dollar deals. It’s all an inside game, and if you’re not on the inside, you’re not allowed to play. Until Sundance turns back the clock and thumbs its nose at the almighty dollar, it will forever be a just another cog in a huge corporate machine.

If Sundance has any desire of moving back toward what it purports to be, it has to fix the selection process. As it stands now, the process is worse than the political system in Washington, where lobbyists and money have a virtual stranglehold on the politicians. First and foremost, lobbying on behalf of the filmmakers, stars, and studios has to stop. I would insist that films be submitted without credits. I would then have the selection committee watch the films without any defining information, i.e the filmmaker, the budget, etc. Granted you can’t hide a recognizable star, but you can make sure everybody starts with as close to a level playing field as possible.

Secondly, I would immediately select a new festival director and selection committee and never disclose their identity. This would seriously curtail access to the committee and go a long way toward eliminating any undue influence a particular film, star, or studio might have.

Finally, I would bar entries from filmmakers that have already had their work shown at the festival. Every year the festival lineup is littered with filmmakers that have had their films shown before. This is analogous to the advantage an incumbent has in a political race. Of course previous filmmakers have a better chance at being selected, not only is their work already known, they have inside access to the selection committee. What is the value in showing the same filmmakers’ work repeatedly? Why not give someone else a chance that may have a fresh point of view?

Of course, Sundance will never implement any changes of the sort. Why? Because they like the festival the way it is. They like to feel self-important with their supposed influence over the independent film world. Never mind what they claim to stand for as long as the festival gets network coverage and big stars continue to show up. Sundance isn’t interested in films and they haven’t been for a long time. Really, what’s the point as long as the money and accolades keep rolling in?

Joe Catoe

Joe Catoe, from Cincinnati, Ohio, is both a filmmaker and film critic who cannot be held responsible for his own opinions. Joe welcomes opposing views and promises to both publicly and privately disagree.

One Reply to “Why Sundance Sucks”

  1. Thanks for writing this. It is particularly disturbing when I have to watch year after year films getting in because they submitter or the submitter’s agent know the right people on the “selection committee” and then they all laugh and smile and act like they are really giving outside filmmakers a chance. Sundance became a studio venture decades ago. It is now Hollywood garbage by another name. Thanks for writing this.

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