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The Sundance Kids

For alumni of America's most prestigious film festival, winning is less than half the battle.

The Sundance Film Festival experienced by Walkow and Godmilow two decades ago was a very different animal from the one that stalked the streets of Park City through January 28. As Walkow remembers it, "The hospitality suite for the festival was contained in the Moose Lodge, on the second floor of some building. They had a coffee urn and some rolls and stuff. It was that small. Saundra Saperstein, who was one of the festival publicists, also sold all the T-shirts and paraphernalia. When I came back in '96 with Notes From Underground, it was completely different. Look, Main Street basically doubled in length. In how many cities does Main Street become twice as long in the course of ten years?"

Real estate development aside, however, Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore feels that the mandate of the festival -- to showcase new work by emerging American independent filmmakers -- has remained elementally the same over the festival's 23 years. What's changed, he says, is that "the spectrum of independent film is so much broader today. You've got work now that can fully play in the mainstream, and you still have films that are as marginal and as esoteric as they were back then." And there may be no more compelling proof of Gilmore's point than the fact that one of the most acclaimed films from the 2006 edition of the festival, Little Miss Sunshine, has grossed north of $60 million at the U.S. box office and just nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nomination, while another, Kelly Reichardt's minimalist road movie Old Joy, has struggled to get to $200,000. (Even last year's combined winner of the festival's dramatic Grand Jury Prize and its Audience Award, Quincea├▒era, topped out at $1.6 million.) Whereas in the early 1990s a $1 million domestic gross was considered solid business for an indie release, for the indie films of today the potential rewards (for a hit) and risks (for a flop) have never been greater.

Part of the blame for that disparity lies with an overcrowded movie marketplace in which close to 600 films annually are now seeing some kind of domestic release and jockeying for their share of a diminishing theatrical audience. "I'll give you a case in point," says former producer representative John Pierson (who, with his Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, literally wrote the book on the Amerindie film scene of the late '80s and early '90s). "One of the films from a much lighter releasing time that I had a hand in was called Living on Tokyo Time (1987) by a guy named Steven Okazaki, who has since gone on to win a documentary Oscar. Skouras Pictures bought that film for an advance of $215,000 -- it was a $100,000 film, so that was great for us. Then we were hopeful, we had our fingers crossed, and we were completely and utterly depressed when it grossed -- and keep in mind this is with much lower, 1987-style ticket prices -- somewhere around $450,000. We all wanted to shoot ourselves. But how many films from Sundance last year even made it to $450,000 in their theatrical releases?"

Opening night of the 1989 "Sundance" Film Festival. 


CREDIT: Sandria Miller
Opening night of the 1989 "Sundance" Film Festival.

CREDIT: Sandria Miller

Main Street and the Egyptian Theater at Sundance, circa 1991. 


CREDIT: Sandria Miller
Main Street and the Egyptian Theater at Sundance, circa 1991.

CREDIT: Sandria Miller

Pierson also has tough words for industry reporters who conflate box-office success with artistic merit and for what he sees as a herd mentality among some more serious-minded critics. "If you look at Sundance last year," he points out, "the narrative competition had a larger number of tougher films by lesser-known filmmakers than in quite a while, and they had a hard time getting attention. That's not Sundance's fault. It's the media's fault for turning Sundance into a situation where 92.3 percent of all the coverage winds up being about Little Miss Sunshine. My big issue across the board with non-studio filmmaking has always been: Why can't people make up their own minds? Why does there tend to be a bandwagon effect with critics and the media? Why have distributors decided that they can't even deal with films that don't get selected for Sundance in the first place? Again, that's not Sundance's fault: The power that has accrued to the festival has been ceded, not grabbed."

Gilmore agrees that the media often fail to see the bigger Sundance picture and that, this year alone, the festival has placed a greater emphasis than ever before on its sidebar of experimental and avant-garde films known as the New Frontier. "I was just talking to a critic about The Station Agent (2003), which made about $6 million, and this critic said, 'Well, it did okay for a film about a dwarf living in a railroad depot.' Now, is that absurd or what? To what degree does independent film, in all of its distinctive, fresh and original sensibility, also have to play the mainstream? People don't make the kind of differentiations that they should between genre films that break out into the mainstream and work that is not genre-oriented in the first place."

So is there any hope that future generations of personal filmmakers -- the next Jill Godmilows and Gary Walkows -- will be able to reach audiences through the conventional channels of film distribution and exhibition? "I tell people they still need to think about that," advises Pierson, who now teaches an advanced producing class at the University of Texas at Austin. "For the moment, that's still the way to get the recognition that will achieve that other goal, which is making more movies and having a career. People still get to make feature films, basically, who have made a feature film. People don't get to make feature films because they had a popular video short on YouTube."

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