History of the Sundance Film Festival

History, Part 5

As the curtain was raised on the 2006 festival, grumbles were heard that the festival was once again becoming too star-focussed and overtaken by corporate brands. Indeed, in an interview that year Robert Redford told Newsweek, "To the outside world, it's a big fat market where you have people like Paris Hilton going to parties. Now, she doesn't have anything to do with anything. I think the festival is close to being out of control." Redford's concerns were of course legitimate, but behind the star-spotting and overzealous brands, the festival still managed to present a strong program of challenging independent cinema. Highlights included Grand Jury Prize winner, Quinceañera, a dramatic film charting the lives of a group of disaffected Los Angeles teenagers, documentary God Grew Tired of Us (also a Grand Jury Prize winner), Bobcat Goldthwait's upstart comedy Stay, and the whimsical fable Wristcutters: A Love Story from Goran Dukic. High-profile out of competition screenings in 2006 included the soon-to-be megahit, Little Miss Sunshine, Al Gore's seminal documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and the Josh Harnet vehicle, Lucky Number Slevin.

With the dust still settling from the explosion that was Little Miss Sunshine (kept at the forefront of people's minds by that film's high-profile Oscar campaign which was ramping up as the festival started) the 2007 festival kicked off on a sad note. The premiere of the upbeat romantic comedy Waitress was overshadowed by the senseless murder of its director, Sundance regular Adrienne Shelly, two months before the festival. But the sober mood wasn't enough to dampen enthusiasm in buying circles. Despite many buyers grumbling that 2007 festival was more about quantity than quality, it didn't stop them spending money like there was no tomorrow – in all around $50m worth of acquisitions activity was completed during the festival. Big acquisitions included Gareth Jennings' quirky British comedy, Son of Rambow, James C. Strouse's John Cusack starrer, Grace is Gone (also an Audience Award winner), and John Carney's Irish romantic musical Once (later an Oscar-winner for Best Original Song). Forward buzz around Jake Paltrow's The Good Night (starring Martin Freeman and Penélope Cruz) was even strong enough to prompt a rare visit to Park City from Steven Spielberg.

Today, the Sundance Film Festival continues to be the pre-eminent event of its type in America and is considered one of the top five film festivals in the world (alongside Cannes, Venice, Toronto, and Berlin). Although the arrival of the new millennium has bought fresh challenges for the festival management, such as overzealous, non-affiliated corporate brands attempting to cash in on the publicity, and an increasingly blurry line between studio and independent films, the festival remains firmly focused on showcasing the talents of America's independent filmmakers. Sundance is also trying to position itself to become, according to former director Geoffrey Gilmore, a "launch pad for English-language films." Current festival director, John Cooper, says that going forward, the festival "... will look to independent filmmakers and see what kinds of films they are making and how they’re telling their stories, because that is what our mission is..." Meanwhile, Sundance continues to set attendance records (around 50,000 visitors in 2008), and submissions remain as high as ever (more than 8,700 in 2008) as the next generation of filmmakers try hard to grab a piece of the Sundance dream.

Further reading on the Sundance Film Festival »

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