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A somewhat more successful symbolic experiment in bridging the gap between Sundance's natural elitism and the ongoing democratization of the means and tools of indie-film production came in the form of Cyrus, the latest film directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. Produced and to be distributed this spring by Fox Searchlight, Cyrus stars Superbad's Jonah Hill as the annoying and potentially diabolical son of Molly (Marisa Tomei), a beautiful spitfire who takes an unlikely romantic interest in John C. Reilly's lovable loser. As the last Duplass feature, Baghead, tweaked the conventions of the indie horror film, Cyrus riffs on a venerable subgenre of romantic comedy: The Schlubby Manchild Falls in Love and Grows Up.
Sundance has premiered each of the Duplasses' three features, but it's hard to overestimate the extent to which, in two short years since Baghead's premiere, the brothers have graduated to a different league. Cyrus is estimated to have cost about $5 million — or, roughly one hundred times the reported budget of Baghead. Whether intended or not, Sundance is effectively holding up the Duplass family as the poster children of the current wave of self-made American indie filmmakers made good. That's a shame, because as the brothers' films become more "legitimate," they become less interesting. Their first feature, The Puffy Chair, was technically uneven, but it had an anarchic quality to its comedy that's sorely missing from the comparatively staid Cyrus. If this is what a compromise between the two poles of the indie industry looks like, maybe polarity isn't such a bad thing.
On Wednesday, just past the festival's halfway point, a concrete symbol of changing times came in the form of an e-mail blast from former Miramax publicity vice president Andrew Bernstein, announcing that as of Friday, January 29, the New York offices of Miramax would be closed for good. It wasn't exactly bombshell news that Miramax was effectively shutting down — Nikki Finke published a memo from president Daniel Battsek in late October announcing that he'd be gone by February 1, with what was left of daily operations to be handled out of the Disney offices in L.A. It was the lack of impact on the ground in Park City that seemed significant.
The morning after Bernstein's e-mail, New York filmmakers Zeina Durra and Vanessa Hope sat in an otherwise-deserted film-festival lounge. Durra is the director of the Dramatic Competition entry The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, a bone-dry, Godard-meets–Whit Stillman political satire, shot on super 16 mm, about multicultural class clash in post-9/11 New York City. Hope, the petite blond wife of famed indie producer Ted (Happiness, The Ice Storm), produced Durra's movie, which is the very definition of a tough sell. When asked how they felt about premiering and looking for a distributor at Sundance the same week Miramax was shutting down, Hope acknowledged, "It's the end of an era. It's too bad." She shrugged slightly, as if to say, "What can I say? I have more pressing problems."
Durra, younger and less tied to the previous generation of indie film, laughed off the notion that Miramax could have mattered to someone as mired in the new DIY world order as she. (The bulk of the Imperialists budget, which Hope won't disclose but I'd estimate at no more than $1 million, came from private equity and tax credits.)
"I don't think Miramax would have helped me anyway, so I'm okay!" Durra exclaimed. "How indie were they, really?"
I gently argued that she is probably only at this festival with a sales agent, hoping to find a commercial outlet for an obstinate art film, because the Weinsteins' early acquisitions of truly independent films like sex, lies and videotape and Clerks created a Sundance marketplace. Ironically, Durra's sales agent happens to be Andrew Herwitz ... former head of acquisitions for Miramax.
"No, they were indie," Hope agreed.
Durra continued to protest, her British accent rising half an octave closer to a shriek. "But, like, establishment indie."
In two decades, the memory of what the sale of sex, lies and videotape meant — to this festival, to a wider world turned on to the idea of seeing independently produced films in multiplexes because of it — and the risk involved in its acquisition have been wiped away by the spoils of its success, the increased clout and Disney resources that allowed Miramax to produce conventional fare, such as Shakespeare in Love. The shocking news is not that Miramax is no longer the savior of indie filmmakers but that there's a generation of indie filmmakers who don't think Miramax was ever indie at all.
Perhaps Disney chose the week of Sundance to shut down its loaded indie label because it thought journalists wouldn't be paying attention. Certainly, they weren't initially paying much attention to Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein, who was in Sundance to throw a big party for Nowhere Boy, a film by British artist Sam Taylor-Wood chronicling the teen years of John Lennon. On Wednesday night, before the party, Weinstein was seen at a press-and-industry screening of Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance's experimental marriage drama, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Was he interested in buying it? "That would be crazy, even for him," one sales agent told me.
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