Washington Life does Sundance Film Festival, taking Park City, Utah, by storm.
By John Arundel
Park City, Utah during the Sundance Film Festival is probably the only place in the world where you can board public transit and strike up conversations simultaneously with a Mexican drug lord on CSI:Miami, an actress starring opposite Paul Giamatti in his newest flick, and a Sony Pictures executive who runs the studio’s digital streaming site, Crackle.
All on the same bus.
This happened on my first day at Sundance, the largest independent cinema festival in the United States, held each third week of January in the picturesque ski resort of Park City, and in separate venues in Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah.
As the Sundance Institute’s founder and president, the legendary actor Robert Redford made it clear that Park City and Sundance are two different places. “Sundance is not Park City,” Redford told reporters in his annual “state of the festival” press conference Jan. 19 at the Egyptian Theatre. “It’s a place where this all started back in the 1980s when I started up the labs.”
The labs are at the Sundance Resort, about 40 miles away from Park City, where Redford and his team, including Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, and John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival, encourage young filmmakers to develop and create their films. “The festival is a part of (the Sundance Institute), but in my mind, the stronger part, the more meaningful part, is the development part where our labs are,” he said.
The filmmakers’ labs have expanded because of the film festival’s success. “We are able to include documentary labs, short-film labs, producer labs, all those elements that have to do with storytelling,” Redford said.
Film Distribution – A Primer
With Internet and cable, success in distribution these days takes on many forms. At the Sundance Institute, a new program called Artist Services helps filmmakers pursue a self-distribution strategy, and Redford and has team have helped new artists raise more than $1.5 million on Kickstarter.com to fund their projects, and have offered any Sundance-supported films, past and present, access to the top online distribution portals.
“With the collapsing of the mainstream (studio system), with the business changing so radically, what I’m seeing now is that the independent film category is growing,” Redford said.
Independent films have the ability to move, inform and inspire people, and make change, Putnam told journalists, and filmmakers are facing changes in distribution, globalization and technology, which have become priorities at the institute.
“In many ways, the festival is a true embodiment of what we do at the institute year-round,” she said. “In a concrete sense, you can see that in the 27 feature films that will be screened in this year’s festival that were supported creatively or financially by the institute.”
Sundance began in Salt Lake City in 1978, as the “Utah/US Film Festival,” an effort by the state government to attract more filmmakers to Utah. Chaired by Redford, it was founded by Sterling Van Wagenen, who was then head of Wildwood, Redford’s production company, and John Earle and Cirina Hampton Catania, who were serving on the Utah Film Commission at the time.
That first festival in ’78 featured films that are now classics like “Deliverance,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The goal was to showcase strictly American-made films and to celebrate the Frank Capra Award, which that first year went to the legendary actor Jimmy Stewart. The festival made a profit in its first year.
Even with its expansion and success, the institute’s mission hasn’t changed much since it was founded in 1979, one year after the first festival was held.
“Our mission is pretty simple,” Redford said. “It is creating a platform for independent artists to show their work. This is the only festival that I know is truly independent in the world, and it’s the only festival that has a year-round workshop attached to it.”
At 75, looking slim and vibrant, Redford shows no outward signs of slowing down, either personally or professionally. His Sundance Institute and Festival have become global institutions, and his team makes it clear that they’re aggressively pursuing his desire for Sundance to be at the intersection of technology and storytelling, globally.
“Today, 30 percent of the artists at the institute are international,” Putnam said. “This year we are going to hold labs and workshops in China, India, Jordan, and East Africa.”
Last fall the institute set up the New Frontier Lab, and launched Film Forward, a traveling film festival that takes 10 films on the road, with the goal of engaging audiences and broadening cross-cultural understanding. This April, the Sundance Institute will present Sundance London, a collaboration between the institute and AEG, owner of the O2 Arena in London.
“It’s going to be a four-day music and film festival that will give us the opportunity to expand our reach,” Putnam said. “The 2012 Sundance Film Festival is proof that the independent-film community is healthy.”
As the premier showcase for new work from American and international independent filmmakers, the 10-day festival comprises competitive sections for American and international dramatic and documentary films, both feature-length films and short films, and a group of out-of-competition sections, including NEXT, New Frontier, Spotlight, and Park City at Midnight.
The Economic Downturn as Theater
This year, the economic downturn was a dominant theme of the festival, judging by the large number of films selected depicting downbeat subjects like homelessness, hunger, Occupy Wall Street, and financial despair.
“It’s no secret the times are dark and grim and in addition to that, we’re suffering from a government that is in paralysis,” Redford said. “The happy thing is here, for this week, we’re going to see works of artists, although they may reflect these hard times, there is no paralysis here.”
Indeed, the opening night selection, introduced personally by Redford to a packed house of VIPs at the Eccles Center, was “The Queen of Versailles,” which took the prize for directing in the U.S. Documentary Competition Jan. 29 for director Lauren Greenfield.
Also in the audience was Jackie Siegel, 43, a principal subject of her riveting exposé of one billionaire family’s financial tumble caused by the nation’s economic collapse. Siegel, whose 74-year-old husband David has sued both Greenfield and the Sundance Film Festival claiming the publicity surrounding the film was defamatory, was seeing the film for the first time, Greenfield told reporters.
“Queen” opens with the Siegels flying high, with David’s company, Orlando-based Westgate, on track for a billion-dollar year, a resort empire ranked the biggest privately owned timeshare company in the world, with 28 projects in 11 states. Jackie, the mother of eight children, is living the high life, complete with private jet, designer pets, a staff of household help, and a 90,000-square-foot mansion built in the style of Louis XIV’s Parisian chateau, “Versailles.”
“We were like addicts,” David admits in the film, and the bankers were the “pushers.” The two had come up from humble, working-class roots, but got taken down in 2008 by a financial tsunami created by an overheated economy based on mortgage inflation and speculation.
As the cameras are still rolling, the film suddenly turns dark, depicting rows of empty telemarketing cubicles at the company’s headquarters, a house that has fallen into disrepair and has to be sold, and just-completed timeshare properties that go into foreclosure.
“The Siegels were brave to continue and I am grateful for that. In the end I think we came out with something more meaningful than the film I intended to make,” Greenfield said at the Q&A following the screening. “It began as a fantasy and becomes more of a human drama. I think as a country we are all readjusting our values.”
But just how many of the well-heeled Sundance attendees were still focused on the aftershocks of the economic meltdown is anyone’s guess.
The Sundance Hysteria
Every table at Redford’s signature restaurant Zoom had been booked for months, and standard rooms at the swanky, 175-room Waldorf Astoria were fetching $800 per night. The latest draw at Park City this year is the country’s only heated chairlift, a quad chair encased in a tinted orange shield. You board it near the resort’s new ski “beach,” a sunlit esplanade complete with lounge chairs and fire pits.
The Sundance Collective on Promontory Point was the brainchild of Festival aficionados Charley Paret and Clark Seydel, once George Mason college roommates who work in DC: A place where young directors, producers, actors, actresses, screenwriters, musicians and other like-minded film lovers could gather once a year and swap business cards and mull over ideas for film, TV or music projects during the world’s largest indie film festival.
In its fourth year, The Collective 2012 was a collection of five rented ski lodges high up in the Wasatch Mountain Range of Park City. This January it hosted 75 guests, mostly from the Washington area, but also from New York, Miami and Los Angeles. The invite-only Collective increased its participation three-fold this year, from 20 participants in 2011.
There were fundraisers that ran the gamut, from UNICEF’s Haitian Relief Fund led by John Kluge to obliterating cancer, a Washington at Sundance event sponsored by the DC Film Office, and a post-screening event for “Fishing Without Nets,” a 17-minute drama about Somali fishermen lured into the pirate trade. The documentary, produced by 25-year-old writer director, Cutter Hodierne from Arlington, VA., won the top jury prize for short films at Sundance. Hodierne said he hopes to turn his story into a feature-length film.
The social entrepreneur and humanitarian Peter Alan Thum, who founded the socially-conscious Ethos Water in 2001 and then sold it to to Starbucks in 2005, spoke to the Collective about his new company, Fonderie 47, which takes AK-47s from the hands of teen soldiers in war-torn places like Somalia and forges them into high-end jewelry.
Thum was accompanied to the Collective by his wife, the actress Cara Buono of New York, who is best known for her popular role as Dr. Faye Miller on AMC’s hit series “Mad Men.” Thum and Buono led Collectivers to make short videos for schoolchildren in Haiti.
Outside the sprawling Collective, New York-based Fashion-on-the-Go MULU installed a giant igloo-shaped boutique tent for attendees needing coats, mittens or other cold-weather clothes to ward off the chill. A good thing: It snowed continuously for the first four days of the festival.
At night, eight events were catered by Iron Chef Mark Timms, the Executive Chef of Easton, Maryland’s Inn at Perry Cabin, and the main house rocked to the tunes of Venice, California’s Makepeace Brothers and to the spins of Structure, Lady Gaga’s DJ who tours with her worldwide, providing the tunes that warm up her crowds. “This is like practice for me,” Structure said. “I like to throw on a record and see if it’s bobbing their heads.”
“The Collective just set itself apart from everything else going on,” he added. “The thing that makes the Collective so special is that it’s not a nightclub. You’re providing music for the top facemakers of the entire entertainment industry. It’s one of the coolest and funnest environments I’ve ever worked.”
One Collective attendee was 20-year veteran of the polo world and founder of the Great Meadow Polo Club in The Plains, Peter Arundel of McLean, who came to Park City to pitch his new screenplay “Falling from Horses.” He said that his own participation in the sport inspired him to write about it. “It is a world that I know about and I wanted to tell the story. It is based on real people who play the game, so in that sense it is a docu-drama.” Arundel said. “There is a thirst for feel good movies in a bad economy. My script reflects well on Virginia and also on the sport of polo.”
He was at Sundance promoting his new web site www.fallingfromhorses.com and says that “the phone calls started coming in after I talked with a few people about my web site and my script.”
Other attendees of The Collective included the Brazilian actress Luciana Faulhaber, Kiki Ryan of the Susan G. Komen Foundation (which for the first time threw an event at Sundance), the film producer and director Vincent DePaul of Miami and Los Angeles, NeuProfile’s Jessica Hoy of DC, Availor Group’s Katherine Kennedy and ABB Partner’s Grant Allen of DC, pilates and yoga instructor Reina Offut of Potomac, MD., the actor Jeremiah Bitsui who plays a recurring role as a Mexican druglord on CSI:Miami, Circle4 Records CEO Adam Falkoff of DC, WB50’s Ashley Messina, and Elizabeth Webster, director of business outreach for DC Councilman Vincent Orange, who oversees DC’s Office of Motion Pictures.
“DC is committed to helping independent filmmakers and bringing more production projects to the District,” Webster said. “That’s my main focus for being here.”
This year, Park City’s go-to watering holes – places like the No Name Saloon, Riverhorse, Grappa, Chimayo and 350 Main — were jammed during the festival, and Main Street at times was like a parking lot of tinted GM Escalades, which were constantly disgorging celebrities, studio execs and other A-Listers into the gifting lounges, bars and restaurants.
PT Barnum at Sundance
Ahhh, the gifting lounges. Economic meltdown be damned.
It was not just filmed entertainment on parade here; Madison Avenue was also out in full force, as Sundance has become almost like a brand exercise, a World Series of PT Barnum-like showmanship of the hippest and hottest new clothes, bootwear, breakfast cereals and grain vodkas.
Bing Bar, TAO, T-Mobile and Google Music, The Stella Artois House and Grey Goose Vodka’s Blue Door on Main Street were among the hottest spots at this year’s festival, invite-only spaces which spanned several floors with bars on each, and nightly entertainment featuring the likes of Jason Mraz, The Bad Rabbits, Vintage Trouble and DC’s own jazz saxophonist Ski Johnson.
During the day the lounges hosted the likes of Hollywood superstars Sean Penn, Richard Gere, Anne Heche and the casts from some of the festival’s top films for press junkets. Mary J. Blige came through, as did Octavia Spencer, Kirsten Dunst, Blythe Danner, Andy Samberg, David Duchovny, Elizabeth Olsen and James Marsden.
One of the best places to catch a glimpse of a Hollywood celeb was downtown at the Talent Resources Suite.
At any given moment during the two-day gifting suite you might have caught actress Emma Roberts picking up a Lenovo Tablet, singer Mary J. Blige tryimg on a Sean John ski jacket, or, at the bar, actor William H. Macy drinking Refine Mixers and Voli Light Vodka, or SNL funnyman Chris Kattan trying the new chocolate Cream of Wheat. That 70s Show star Wilmer Valderamma must have had a rough night before, as he came in wearing dark black shades and a black chrome hearts hoodie. After getting some refreshing products at Prasad Cosmetic Surgery‘s Medi Spa, he took off the shades and made his way over to Beaumarchais’ Beau Cafe for Tuna Tartar and took home a beau-themed hat for a friend who shares the name Beau.
Another hot gifting lounge was Miami Oasis, at the foot of Main Street. The converted space provided guests with VIP salon services by göt2b POWDER’ful, shoes and luxury handbags from high-end Italian designer Carlo Pazolini, and a live DJ set provided by 611 Lifestyle as they sipped on signature DISARONNO cocktails, and muddled their own cocktails at Patrón‘s build-your-own mojito station.
Guests also munched on Udi’s Gluten-Free Foods including cinnamon rolls, sandwiches, pizza, brownies, and Sabra hummus. A few brave guests channeled the essence of Miami and got inked up with real tattoos by Code of Conduct’s Jason Hoodrich, or loaded up on a variety of goodies by Burt’s Beeswax and Vita Coco Vitamin Water.
The Kennedys at Sundance
RFK Jr., who premiered a documentary last year at the film festival, was one of 20 Kennedys or in-laws at Sundance there to support Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert and Ethel Skakel Kennedy, who screened “Ethel,” her upcoming HBO documentary, which is a portrait of RFK’s famously private widow. Rory, who was born after her father’s assassination in 1968, made a loving and touching documentary filled with archival footage and home movies. The 24-year-old singer Taylor Swift, a Kennedy fan, flew in from Los Angeles for the day, just to catch the premiere.
“My mother has lived through so many extraordinary historical events and was on the front lines every step of the way,” Rory Kennedy said during the audience Q&A after the screening. “Selfishly, my interest was for my children and my children’s children, and being able to help capture my mother for them, who she is and what she stood for.”
Rory, whose films include Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable, includes a remarkable moment in her film when she asks her mother about her father’s death. Ethel Kennedy gets choked up and instructs her daughter to, “Talk about something else.”
“Part of how my mother has gotten through so much tragedy in life is her inner strength,” Rory Kennedy told the audience. “Religion helped too, but she is not someone who talks about or reflects on difficult moments. So I think that moment in the film speaks volumes about who she is.”
In making the film, Rory said that she did not know previously that her mother bet on the ponies in college, and that she had never heard the story of her father sliding down the banister at the White House the day Jack and Jackie moved in.
“I’d seen a lot of the documentaries about my father, but when I went through the raw footage there was just something else that came through,” she said. “My mother, too. I think they’re very genuine people, and how they lived their lives was very consistent with their public face.”
Sundance: A Filmmaker’s Big Break
Over the years scores of independent filmmakers received their big break at Sundance, such as Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Edward Burns. It was also responsible for bringing wider attention to highly-acclaimed films like “The Blair Witch Project,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Brothers McMullen” and “Napoleon Dynamite.”
In 2010, nine films featured at the festival went on to capture 15 Oscar nominations, and four of the five Best Documentary nominees were Sundance films. Last year, about 45 films were acquired by distributors, an increase of about 220 percent.
“People who used to work in the mainstream are coming to independent work,” Redford said. “For example, you have Spike Lee, you have Stephen Frears.”
Frears held a news conference at Bing Lounge on day three of the festival, to plug his new film “Lay The Favorite,” starring Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The frumpy, irascible British director had a lot to get off his chest.
“I’m British, so I’m very good at making miserable films,” he pronounced. “The studio told us that it could not afford to make the film, so what a blessing that it became an independent film. We had no money, but two big stars, so we had to make it in 31 days in New Orleans, which we did.”
When I asked Frears what it was like to work with Willis and Zeta-Jones, arguably two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he laughed.
“We walked in to meet with Bruce and we were told to act like he had not read the script, which of course made us look like complete idiots, because he had,” Frears recalled. “Once you get over that it’s Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones that you’re directing, it was just laughs all day long. It’s like working with any other actor. He’s great; every so often he would imitate himself from one of his previous films, like ‘Die Hard.’ He was just very funny about his other life.”
For his part, Redford at the opening news conference expressed discomfort with what he called “leveragers,” people who come to the festival to advance their products or their agendas beyond the scope of independent filmmaking: the media extravaganza for Hollywood celebrity actors and wannabes, the paparazzi and the luxury lounges set up by companies not affiliated with Sundance or filmmaking. Starting in 2007, festival organizers tried to curb these activities with their “Focus on Film” campaign.
“Now, it’s a free country, there’s nothing we can do about that,” Redford said, without getting specific. “But we are a nonprofit, and there’s very little that we can control. But we have to work harder and harder to point that out… Sometimes it’s been hard for me.”
With the upcoming 2012 presidential election, Redford had even more to get off his chest. “In terms of politics and Mitt Romney… I’m not gonna get into politics,” he said. “The fact is, you can see with the debates going on, this mushroom cloud of ego hovering over everybody. It’s kind of silly and stupid, and I’m sorry about that.”