History of the Sundance Film Festival

History, Part 3

As the 1980s marched to a close, the festival continued to enhance its profile and attendance figures with a blend of themed collections, retrospectives, and what had become the premiere forum for independent film in the United States. Between 1986 and 1988, around 200 feature films were screened, including Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986); Tim Hunter's classic film with a young Keanu Reeves, River's Edge (1987); an early Robin Williams dramatic effort, Seize the Day (1987); Lizzie Borden's Working Girls (1987); cult French film Betty Blue (1987); and John Waters' Hairspray (1988). But it was 1989 that proved to be a major turning point for the festival.

Since the inaugural Utah/US Film Festival in 1978, the press attention focused on the event had increased exponentially every year. In 1989 the pressure on the festival to play breakout films was more intense than ever and ironically, it was a former festival bus driver who ended up giving the press what they craved. In 1988, Steven Soderbergh had spent two weeks in Park City ferrying festivalgoers around town as a volunteer driver. Returning in 1989 with his debut film sex, lies and videotape, he not only won the inaugural Audience Award but sparked a studio bidding war and hype machine that eventually earned the film over $25 million at the U.S. box office and in the process, cemented the festival's reputation as an essential calendar date for the U.S. film industry. If the press wanted 'break-out', they weren't disappointed.

But the success of sex, lies and videotape wasn't the only highlight in 1989. With 65 other feature films, including Michael Lehmann's Heathers, Martin Donovan's Apartment Zero, and Nancy Savoca's True Love, which won the Grand Jury Prize, as well as a 15-film tribute to John Cassavetes and a centennial celebration of the work of Charlie Chaplin, the 1989 event offered a host of treats for festivalgoers.

The success of the previous year created extremely high expectations for the 1990 festival and although it didn't deliver quite the same level of hype, the event managed to maintain the impressive breadth and depth of the film offerings. Highlights in 1990 included Michael Moore's biting documentary Roger & Me, Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth, Jane Campion's Sweetie, and Reginald Hudlin's House Party, as well as programs of films from Colombia and Kazakhstan, and tributes to directors Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, How I Won the War, Robin and Marian) and Melvin van Peebles (The Story of a Three-Day Pass, Watermelon Man, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song). That year also saw yet-another tweak to the festival's name: the event bowed as the slightly awkward Sundance/United States Film Festival.

The arrival of 1991 bought a range of changes both at the festival and in the wider world. Against the backdrop of hostilities commencing in the first Gulf War, the Sundance Institute quietly celebrated its 10th anniversary, Geoffrey Gilmore took over the programming reins from Tony Safford, and the event registered its final name change, becoming simply the Sundance Film Festival. Highlights of 1991 included Lasse Hallstrom's Once Around, Hal Hartley's Trust, Todd Haynes' Poison, which won the Grand Jury Prize, John Sayles' City of Hope, Stephen Frears' The Grifters, and Richard Linklater's Slacker (the first of a spectrum of films over the next few years which would become synonymous with the festival and independent film in America). In addition to a strong dramatic slate, the 1991 festival also premiered a wide selection of documentaries, dipped its hat to Robert Altman and British director Michael Powell, and presented a special program focused on Japanese cinema.

As the 90s moved up a gear, interest in independent film experienced explosive growth, and the Sundance Film Festival was fast becoming the flagship of this new movement. The 1992 festival delivered an expanded program of the best films from American and international independent filmmakers, in addition to some of the most notorious ones. The biggest splash was of course made by struggling actor and former video-store clerk Quentin Tarantino, who presented his debut feature, the ultra-violent Reservoir Dogs. But 1992 also unleashed a number of other strong films, including Allison Anders's Gas, Food Lodging, Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg's The Waterdance, Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, and Errol Morris' remarkable documentary on wheelchair-bound physics genius Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. Tribute programs also celebrated the work of Stanley Kubrick and Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Yellow Earth), and John Turturro became the inaugural recipient of the Tribute to Independent Vision.

The 1993 festival pretty much picked up where the previous year left off, screening 80 feature films and more than 60 shorts and setting a new attendance record of 55,000 tickets sold. Some of the more memorable films included Sally Potter’s Orlando, Bryan Singer's Public Access, Alfonso Arau's Like Water for Chocolate, and Victor Nunez's Ruby in Paradise (co-winner with Public Access of the Grand Jury Prize). Two other films also captured the spotlight in 1993, albeit for entirely different reasons. The first was Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, which not only picked up the Audience Award, but the story of how he made the film for $7,000 became instrumental in pushing the DIY filmmaking movement into full bloom. The other film that attracted a lot of attention in 1993 was Jennifer Lynch's Boxing Helena, which outraged critics and audiences alike for its macabre subject matter.

That year, festival regulars also began to notice how much the business side of the event influenced those who made the trek to Park City. In his festival wrap in Newsweek, journalist David Ansen noted, "It was an irritating, but not uncommon sight at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival; a guy in a movie theatre, whispering into his cellular phone as the lights go down." Ansen went on to comment, "Agents and lawyers were crawling all over the snowy streets of Park City, Utah, this year; it was said William Morris Agency alone had 25 reps in place, scouring the festival for the next breakthrough twenty-something filmmaker... [The festival] has become a tension-filled auction block, with long waiting lists for the hot screenings and nervous young filmmakers whose futures are on the line." And it would take another seven festivals for things to calm down a little.

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