When actor Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute in 1981 with the purpose of giving a voice to filmmakers who were outside the boundaries of the mighty Hollywood studios, he couldn’t have foreseen that more than thirty years later, it would become a media and celebrity hot spot. According to their mission statement, the Sundance Institute was founded to “foster independence, risk-taking, and new voices in American film.” A few years later in 1985, the Sundance Institute took over the U.S. Film Festival, renamed it the Sundance Film Festival, and extended it to a total ten day screening of independent and foreign films that were unable to reach a bigger audience because of small budgets and virtually no distribution.
However, in the last few years the noble mission of the Sundance Film Festival seems to have shifted, becoming instead an abode for Hollywood elite, reality T.V. celebrity pretenders, and disgraced socialites. Hollie McKay of Fox News ran a story of the festival in 2012, denouncing Sundance’s change in focus to less independent ideals. McKay states: “… the scene in Park City, Utah, where Sundance is held, would seem to run counter to Redford’s characterization, with big corporations sponsoring virtually every event and venue, and super rich celebrities racing each other to scoop up corporate sponsor freebies”. McKay went on to slam the presence of the stars themselves by stating: “And then there are the celebrities who are there for the stuff. When they’re not prompting films or trying to be photographed by paparazzi, many actors can be found filling duffel bags full of thousands of dollars worth of free goods by bouncing from one gifting lounge to another, in which title sponsors and vendors pay upwards of $50,000 dollars for the privilege of giving away free products to famous people”. So what is truly happening with the original spirit of Sundance? It seems to have lost its way, with big studios elbowing in with their own agendas, screening films under independent subsidiaries, and securing distribution of potentially money-making new films. According to McKay, the change is also felt by many indie filmmakers who find they cannot possibly compete under the festival’s new standards. In 2012, the year McKay’s article was written, a group calling themselves “Occupy Sundance” camped outside where many of the festival’s events were taking place. Their goal, they claimed, was to bring to people’s attention that of the more than 11.000 films submitted to the festival that year, only 180 had been accepted. This event was also mentioned in McKay’s story.
Redford recognized in 2010, that the spirit of the festival had been slipping. That year, Megan Friedman of Time Magazine quoted Redford in the festival’s press conference: “It kind of engulfed what we did,” he said. “You end up with parties and celebrities and Paris Hilton … and that’s not us. Sundance has nothing to do with any of that.” Redford strategically afterwards hired a new film director loaded with the task to undo the damage. But perhaps at this point, it was too late. 2015 continued to witness Sundance catering not only to celebrities du jour, but also to members of the press, some of who Tweeted selfies of themselves at parties and one even boasted he was enjoying the company of a Grey Goose Vodka bottle (a festival sponsor) by his side at one of the conferences. Going back even further to 2006, William Booth of The Washington Post claimed that the festival seemed like a “swag dance of celebrities”, where even a Canine Luxury Spa advertises its services for celebrity pooches. According to Booth, Redford stated: “Once the festival achieved a certain level of notoriety, people come with agendas that were not the same as ours…once we had built a market, we got an outer tier. So you get parties and celebrities, and that’s fine.” Not only does this contradict his statement in 2010, but the question must be asked: is it really fine? What happened to Sundance’s mission statement to “foster independence”? Did it get lost along the way,perhaps at the very bottom of a luxury grab bag? Booth states that even the gifts are discriminatory, with scandal related socialites like Paris Hilton taking away a plasma television while in turn, a documentary filmmaker has to make do with a jar of Kiehl’s lipbalm. A film festival veteran, who chose to remain anonymous commented: “It struck me as odd when, in 2003, Cannes debuted The Matrix: Reloaded. At the time, I couldn’t recall such a major summer film opening at the festival. But more bizarre was Warner Bros.’ decision to open Jupiter Ascending at this year’s Sundance. I get that both film festivals are major Hollywood events, but at the time of each debut (esp. Sundance), I just thought it was very weird”.
Stranger still is Sundance described as part of a “major Hollywood event” because if true, it throws Redford’s original intent completely out of the water. More recently in their March issue, Vanity Fair published their humor-soaked column “Your Pocket Guide to the 2015 Film Festival Circuit” (Vanities, March 2015) comparing three major film festivals: Cannes, Sundance, Telluride and Pyongyang. Cannes is described as “The annual coming together of the elite and distinguished”,which has been its premise since the festival’s beginnings in 1946. Luxury surrounds Cannes, starting at the Palais des Festivals et des Congres where the festival is held each year, with lavish dinners and glittering receptions held in honor of filmmakers and actors fortunate enough to secure a special invitation. Telluride is pictured in the same article as having “The fest for true cineasts” as their motto,their participants holding NPR (National Pubic Radio) tote bags. Sundance is pictured somewhere in an awkward middle, according to Vanity Fair who in a sarcastic description, details that the festival highlight was: “Diamond-studded iPhone-case giveaway at after-party for documentary on Third World slavery”. Tragically, the biggest losers seem to be the authentic independent filmmakers, along with the audience who once regarded Sundance as a refuge from corporate agendas, where creativity flowed free and was appreciated by cinema loving individuals who were happy to embrace the films that the festival had to offer. Now this same audience is finding it difficult to make their way in among costly plane tickets and outrageous hotel prices.
Perhaps instead of hiring a new festival director, Redford should have turned to his own colleagues. In 2008, actress Tilda Swinton paired up with her close friend, writer, film critic and director Mark Cousins to host a film festival in Swinton’s home town in Nairn, Scotland. Hosted inside an old bingo hall adequately named “The Ballerina Ballroom”, and rented by Swinton on an impulse, the festival ran for 8 1/2 days, screening films like Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s film “I Know Where I’m Going”, “The Red Shoes”, (also by Pressburger and Powell), “A Bag Of Rice” an Iranian feature film directed by Mohammad-Ali Talebi, among countless others. The independent British journal “The Skinny” reported that for 3£ (aprox. 6$) or by “bringing a tray of home-cooked cakes” you could get in, sit on a beanbag chair on the floor, and enjoy the films in an undeniable cozy environment surrounded by mirrored stars. Many seemed somewhat surprised that Swinton would not cash in on her recent appearance as the icy White Witch in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”, but decided instead to lavish in a celebrity free, humble layout of a festival. The truth was that her earnings from the film had helped rent the place, along with donations from many friends. Journalist Charlotte Higgins from “The Guardian”, stated that The Ballerina was “the cure, perhaps, for film festivals”.
It is hard to imagine for any lover of independent cinema, that one needs to be cured of film festivals. But it is true that what started as an informal event for cinephiles, is now seen by many as a rendezvous spot for the glitterati. Festival goers can only hope that perhaps one day, the festival will go back to its origins, a haven where creative independent filmmakers once gathered to create a truly unique and free cinema.