PARK CITY, Utah - I'm stuffed into the back of a motel van, coming from the Salt Lake City airport, fishtailing and speeding into the snowy, icy Wasatch Mountains, crammed with eight others into a mess of limbs, skis, digital video cameras, blonde streaks, and leather pants, when a fellow passenger breaks the tension.
She asks a simple question.
“The Sundance Film Festival, so this is a big deal?”
Decorum breaks down. The van, filled with actors and directors and film acquisition agents and even a guy who made sandwiches for the crew of his friend's nine-minute short film, explodes into roars of laughter.
“I guess I'm na ve,” she says sheepishly. “What is it, black and white movies with subtitles?”
More laughter, and the driver, a burly guy with a beer gut and a Vince Gill tape in the stereo, shouts “Hey! Hey, you all snobs, man.” Everyone gets quiet and stays quiet for the next 20 minutes.
“Listen,” he says to the lady, “Sundance is the biggest deal.”
Every January, 24,000 moviegoers, agents, publicists, filmmakers, and press converge on this tiny ski resort like Hannibal with a fleet of Range Rovers. After 20 years, Sundance has not only become the nation's premiere showcase for independent films, it's the most important film festival in the country. If you want to take the temperature of the film industry, this isn't a bad place to start. If you're a filmmaker and you want the right people to see your unproven masterpiece, this isn't a bad place to be. The air is thin up here. Distributors pay way too much for movies nobody in the real world would rent.
Consider Sundance a base camp for the independent film movement. In 1989, Steven Soderbergh put the festival on the map when his sex, lies and videotape ignited a bidding war. A couple of years ago, The Blair Witch Project premiered here - a $140 million hit that should fuel Sundance dreams for at least another decade. This year, says festival director Geoffrey Gilmore, the number of entrants has jumped. But then it always jumps, he adds warily. Until 1995, about 270 features were submitted annually; this year, 854 films were submitted for 16 slots in the dramatic film competition; 390 documentaries vied for, again, 16 slots; and though nearly 2,200 short films were sent, only 63 were chosen.
Once here, however, the lucky winners run another gantlet: looking for distribution. Those are the winners who make up a good chunk of what you'll see in multiplexes and specialty theaters, as well as on cable and public TV, during the next 18 months.
The Premieres section of the festival, which features films not in competition, has the biggest names. This is where studios and distributors often use Sundance as a publicity launch pad. My First Mister, the directorial debut of actress Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope), kicked off opening night last week with a story about a romance between a 17-year old girl (Leelee Sobieski) and her boss (Albert Brooks). The other premieres include a number of films featuring independent icons: Double Whammy, starring Denis Leary and Elizabeth Hurley, is the latest odd comedy from Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion); Samuel Jackson plays a homeless man in The Caveman's Valentine by Karsi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou); Enigma is a deeply complicated, tremendously old fashioned Hollywood mystery from Michael Apted (42 Up, The World is Not Enough); and Waking Life is the kind of film that was made for Sundance, an experimental animated talk fest from Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused).
In the dramatic competition: Julia Stiles (Save the Last Dance) stars opposite Stockard Channing in The Business of Strangers, a drama about control and business; Hedwig and the Angry Inch is John Cameron Mitchell's Rocky Horror-ish adaptation of the hit off-Broadway play; Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) stars in Memento, a sort of detective story about a man with short-term memory; and Donnie Darko, produced by Drew Barrymore, has been dividing audiences with its story of a possibly disturbed teenager who thinks the world is about to end.
Documentaries are always the surest bet here, and this year is no different: in a few days, you can move from a devastating film about poverty in Mississippi (LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton) to a brilliant look at the birth of a dot.com (Startup.com) to a raucous history of the hip hop DJ (Scratch).
And that's just a taste. There's also dozens of foreign films, a zillion shorts, a couple of revivals, and even a second film from Linklater (Tape, staring Ethan Hawke). But as of right now, there are no huge breakouts. No single film has audiences flowing en masse to a single theater. (Although Enigma came close.)
The great thing about Sundance, at least for a movie lover, is that for 10 days you can't escape movies. Monday morning I found myself on a hotel shuttle seated next to a Cossack hat-wearing bear of a man, Kirill Razlogov, program director for the Moscow International Film Festival. This was his first Sundance.
“It's the best of the worst,” he said, only half-kidding.
He came here to find American independents for his festival. “Sundance serves the purpose of stockpiling. Even if I don't like the movie, the subject matter is important. And American film - always good for video sales in Russia. Just like here, it's rare an independent film makes it in Moscow. But I want My First Mister, even if it's too long and too melodramatic. But you know, Russian audiences are like American audiences: They eat up melodramatic. Who doesn't love movies?”