Every morning during Sundance, a citywide ritual occurs. By the time the tardy sun finally comes over Park City’s Wasatch mountains, competitive teams armed with heavy-duty stapler guns and stacks of posters are fanning out through the streets to put their films’ mark on the surprisingly few bulletin boards designated for public advertising. Because of the limited space, and a hefty fine for posting bills anywhere else, the competition is intense, and it requires a vigilant campaign to keep your poster in the public eye. With several hundred films vying for attention, the hope is that if the right people walk by at the right time and notice your film, even subconsciously, they might remember to see it, and good things might happen. In the war for exposure, the flier squads are the infantry, constantly trying to form a beachhead on every festivalgoer’s short-term memory.
I’m out early, and I see at least a dozen crews on the move. Two kids approach the billboard near me and start systematically checkering it with posters for a Slamdance feature called Homo Erectus.
“How long will one layer stay up?” I ask.
“Half an hour tops,” they say. “Sometimes just a few minutes.” The kids are Shane McAvoy and Bernard Crosland. Shane is a friend of the director. Bernard is his backup. They’re from Temple City, and their travel here is occupied by this sole mission. They’ve been at it since Friday. Recently, they’ve found themselves locked in a tête-à-tête with another movie, called Rocket Science.
“As soon as we’re done,” Shane says, “they come along and cover us up.”
Bernard starts lifting the edges of the posters, peeling back the layers. There must be 50 sheets, and as we sift through the archaeology of promotion, a visible pattern becomes clear. “Our poster is white,” he says, “and theirs is blue.” You can see the edges alternating blue and white all the way to yesterday.
Rocket Science, a “quirky coming-of-age story” about a debate captain who stutters, is in competition at Sundance, and has a team of eight people fliering. “They cover us up in a flash,” Shane says. Bernard adds that they’re putting up posters for other movies too.
“So they’re third-party mercenaries?”
“And as hired guns they don’t even care about the movies on their posters.”
“We’re out here fighting The Man.”
For some, it is a bitter irony that Sundance has become the establishment. It was, after all, originally conceived as an annual mutiny against the big studios. Sundance purists complain about celebrity creep, but would secretly love to have them in their own movies. The Slamdance crowd complains about big, bad Sundance, but would rather be showing there instead. Shorts directors know their entirely uncommercial category lies closer to the festival’s original spirit, but they’d of course like to screen a narrative feature. The dynamic is conflicted, with concentric rings of outsiders simultaneously cursing and envying the relative insiders. It’s the unspoken rule of rebellion: You’re only angry at The Man until you are The Man.
My trip to Sun-/Slam-/X-/Etceteradance was last-minute, with almost no planning. Too late for a press pass, I lack the all-important lanyard-suspended laminate around my neck and am therefore not just at the bottom of the totem pole, but not even on the totem pole — statusless, with the same level of access as a refugee-camp resident. I’m with my friend Jessica, a writer covering the festival. She tells me we’re headed to the press/filmmakers' party, which, just like it sounds, is for all press and filmmakers, meaning virtually everyone in town is invited except me. By definition, then, this event is not a hot ticket, with no talent, no gift bags, no celebrity chef braising beef cheeks with vine-ripened tomatoes on a bed of Parmesan polenta, no list or line at the door. Still, you do need that laminate, and I may not get into a party that no one even cares about.
Halfway into explaining to the staffer checking credentials that I’m meeting some people inside, but don’t have a credential — what I mean is, I accidentally left my credential at the condo in Deer Valley — I run into Kay, a friend from New York, who recognizes my predicament and interjects, “I’m glad I found you — here, I have your pass in my purse.” And with that she slips the protective amulet of a filmmaker laminate around my neck.
Now fully entitled as a producer of a documentary in competition (that will go unnamed here so as to protect my “sources”), I walk in to discover a room full of people all wearing badges printed with the name of their own project or media outlet, drinking Stella (an official Sundance sponsor) and mindlessly eating free finger foods, very deeply fried and unidentifiable.