By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Blue Valentine entered this festival as a "hot" acquisition title. Then it screened, and skepticism set in; the nonlinear, loosely plotted antiromance was, in spite of its stars, deemed by many to be "uncommercial." Over drinks on Main Street one night as the festival was winding down, a journalist friend got worked up over the idea that by screening at Sundance, such a film is judged first and foremost for its mainstream potential. "When did 'uncommercial' become the worst thing you could say about a movie at Sundance?" he seethed. "And if that film is 'uncommercial,' then we're all doomed."
On Friday, the Weinstein Company announced it had picked up the title for seven figures. Thanks to TWC's spotty recent history and questionable future, for some fans of Valentine, this was not considered a victory. As critic Shawn Levy tweeted upon hearing the news, "So much for that film. ..."
Weinstein may be notorious for recutting festival pickups or leaving them on the shelf to rot (see All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, bought in 2006 and never released), but TWC's last festival purchase, Tom Ford's A Single Man, has been a measured success both at the box office and on the awards circuit. As the indie industry streamlines, we can only hope Weinstein has learned the lessons of bloated failed productions, such as the tacky Nine and, in focusing on turning smaller films into awards contenders via savvy marketing, is plotting a return to his own before-the-fall modus operandi.
For those whose time in the industry predates the indie-arm boom, the collapse of studio-dependent production wings may not be a tragedy so much as a natural correction. John Wells, ER creator and producer/writer/director of The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck, characterizes himself as someone who came to Sundance "desperately trying to find someone to release my film." He also sees film festivals adapting to fill the void left by shuttered labels in the marketplace.
"When all the majors got into the indie business with their indie arms, the festivals became about how to promote those films," Wells said. With the obliteration of production slates at labels such as New Line and Paramount Vantage, films like his own are being made outside the studio system — Men was financed on foreign presales, tax credits and bank loans — turning Sundance into an increasingly crucial site for sales, and for attracting future private financing. "I think the festivals are taking a more important role in getting these films seen, and they're going to be essential to getting these movies made."
As his sales agents negotiated with interested parties at the festival's end, Wells seemed nothing if not optimistic about the survival of starry midrange dramas like Men in the post–indie arm era. "It was nice while it lasted," he said.
But Bernard wonders, like Durra, if "those companies that were shut down, were they really indie companies, or were they mirror images of the studio system? They were making $35 million art movies." Citing the rise of ministudios such as Twilight factory Summit, the increasing presence of Precious distributor Lionsgate and the emergence of the VOD market, Bernard concludes, "For all the companies that have shut down, there are new companies that have shown up. You've got a lot of people buying movies — more than ever."
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is God." A disembodied voice, said to be Sundance programmer David Courier, boomed through the Racquet Club, the site of the event's annual end-of-festival awards reception. "Please take your seats. There will be plenty of time to drink."
The faithful Sundancers did as they were told, and were subsequently treated to a long evening during which expected wins (Restrepo, a doc made by journalists embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and Winter's Bone, an Ozark family drama directed by Debra Granik, whose previous Sundance film Down to the Bone was Vera Farmiga's breakout) collided with surprises (Mark Ruffalo's directorial debut, Sympathy for Delicious, and quirky romance Obselidia, two of the festival's most critically reviled titles, won awards, while buzzy favorite Blue Valentine did not). The winners, making the most of their unrestricted moments onstage in front of the assembled indie-film community, tended toward rousing and heartfelt (if largely humorless) speeches assessing the state of American indie film — and Sundance's savior role within it.
Eric Mendelsohn, the unexpected Best Director winner for the Edie Falco–starring suburban triptych 3 Backyards, railed against journalists for criticizing Sundance, and positioned its celebrity figurehead as a national treasure: "A lot of people in the press take potshots at this festival — it's gotten too big, it's gotten too small. You go make your own festival. Robert Redford is single-handedly doing what other countries' governments do for film."
Even comedian Louis C.K., a presenter, expressed appreciation for the Sundance experience. "I hope the audience for these films gets bigger," he said. "When you watch movies at Sundance, you think, 'People would love this shit.' "
And Josh Radnor, sitcom star–turned-director of Audience Award–winning ensemble romcom happythankyoumoreplease, proudly positioned his film within the 2010 festival's official theme. "I think my movie is rebellious because it's about people saying no to cynicism and yes to love."
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