A picture of the Yarrow Hotel in Park City, Utah

History of the Sundance Film Festival (Part 7)

By Benjamin Craig

< Back to Part 6: New Milennium, New Life

Would You Like Brand With That?

As the curtain was raised on the 2006 festival, grumbles were heard that the festival was once again becoming too star-focused 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), Sundance 2007 kicked off on a sombre 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 execs 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.

As the first decade of the new millennium drew to a close, the eclectic programs continued to inspire audiences, but there were fewer single breakout successes. The event's 30th anniversary in 2008 passed without fanfare – the Sundance Institute preferring to mark the occasion from the year it assumed stewardship instead – and some of the hype that had surrounded the festival in previous years started to dissipate. However, the documentary line-ups proved to be particularly strong, with James Marsh's soon-to-be Oscar-winner "Man on Wire", and Marina Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" highlights in 2008, and in 2009, Louis Psihoyos' "The Cove", a gripping, but disturbing exposé on the annual dolphin slaughter in Japan. On the dramatic side, Lee Daniel's "Precious" bowed at Sundance on the road from Cannes to the Oscars, and Steven Soderbergh retuned for a retrospective on "sex, lies, and videotape" to mark the 20th anniversary of the seminal film's debut.

The arrival of 2010 brought with it significant change with the Festival's management. After 19 years as festival director, Geoff Gilmore decided to hand the reigns to his long-time deputy, John Cooper. And Cooper's first year in charge of the selection didn't disappoint. The program continued its recent success at unearthing key films which would go on to wider success, including Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine", Daniel Woodrell's "Winter's Bone", and David Michôd's gripping Australian thriller, "Animal Kingdom". On the documentary side, highlights included Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for ‘Superman'", Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's "Restrepo", and "Sins of My Father", Nicolas Entel's story about his life as the son of notorious Colombian drug-lord, Pablo Escobar.

The festival's 2011 outing saw the new programming team hit their stride, with Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman writing that Cooper and his Director of Programming, Trevor Groth, "have re-energized the festival, heightening its quality and organizing the movies with a tempting new shape and vision." This was manifested partly in a selection of films which saw many established actors take on challenging roles in films such as Sam Levinson's "Another Happy Day", Drake Doremus' "Like Crazy", Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene", and John Michael McDonagh's "The Guard". And on the documentary side, Asif Kapadia's "Senna" stunned Formula 1 fans and non-fans alike with a poignant portrait of a sporting superstar whose life and tragic death touched those both within and beyond the world of motor-racing. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the crop resulted in a Park City acquisitions record, with nearly 30 films from the official selection being picked up for distribution. The other record which fell in 2011 was that for submissions, with the overall tally cracking the 10,000 barrier for the first time.

That record ended up being short-lived. Indie filmmakers had an extremely busy year and for 2012, the festival received in excess of 11,700 submissions. 187 films made the cut and were premiered in the official selection - a selection which was vindicated by the post-festival success many films had at other events and of course the Oscars. The stand-out film for 2012 was Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild", which not only won the Grand Jury Prize, but went on to receive four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Actress Quvenzhané Wallis. At the tender age of 9, Wallis became the youngest Best Actress nominee in history. Sundance also premiered the year's Oscar-winning documentary, Malik Bendjelloul's "Searching for Sugarman", and Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War", also nominated that year.

Continue reading... Part 8: Ladies First >

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