Last November, director Chad Hartigan was in line to see Lincoln at the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz, wondering if it was time for him to get a job. He'd spent all his money — plus the cash from two Kickstarter campaigns — making his second feature, This Is Martin Bonner, and was so poor he couldn't afford rent. Then came the call: His drama about a Reno prison counselor had won a slot in the Sundance Film Festival's Next category, which specializes in small films that take big risks. If you aren't aware of the section, you may be aware of the films it has launched: Compliance, The Sound of My Voice, Simon Killer, Bellflower. Hartigan's life was about to change.
"I almost lost my mind on Vermont in front of everybody," Hartigan says. "I really honestly made the movie for myself — I thought I was making something kind of obtuse."
He left the theater, got drunk, stashed all his belongings in his car, flew to Utah, won the Next Audience Award and hasn't stopped moving since. On Aug. 8, Hartigan and his movie leave their ninth film festival, in Pozna, Poland, to fly back for their first hometown screening at Sundance's inaugural Next Weekend, a four-day summertime spinoff event bringing a dozen indie features (and some short films) to L.A.
"It's kind of the opposite end of Park City and the snow — and it's also our home," says John Cooper, L.A.-based Sundance Festival director, who for years has sought to launch a local event.
From its base at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas in West Hollywood, the fest will spiral out to include screenings at Cinefamily, Cinespia, MOCA, the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater and the Aero Theatre. "We wanted to make sure these films touch all pockets in L.A.," explains Trevor Groth, Sundance director of programming.
But what exactly defines a Next film other than its low budget and lack of stars? In part: redemption. Sundance did, after all, once cater so heavily to celebrities that in 2005 it programmed a disastrous Jenny McCarthy comedy called Dirty Love, currently moldering on Rotten Tomatoes with a 4 percent "fresh" rating. Five years later, in the wake of then–festival head Geoff Gilmore decamping to lead Tribeca, Cooper launched the Next category in order to reconfirm the fest's commitment to renegade cinema.
"There are so many independent films getting made that have movie stars and big budgets and cachet, and people already want to see them," Hartigan says. "And then there's filmmakers like me, who are nobodies and their films star nobodies, and it's difficult to break through."
Compliance director Craig Zobel says, "Next is for storytelling that's too far from 'normal' for safe audiences but is still engaging."
He saw that divisiveness firsthand when his mind-control chiller about a rape at a fast-food restaurant was booed by attendees who couldn't believe his true-crime drama was actually true. (Compliance later went on to win an Independent Spirit Award nomination for actress Anne Dowd and a Rotten Tomatoes score 22 times better than McCarthy's bomb.)
"It's really just the directors' passion, their creativity and their drive," Groth says. "We know these films are Next films when we see them, without being able to exactly put it into a quote." Cooper quips, "It's very much like pornography."
Six of the Next Weekend films played at Sundance in January, including the slow-burning stoner romance Newlyweeds, sex-obsessed teen drama It Felt Like Love and the adorably scrappy art-and-marriage doc Cutie and the Boxer, poached from the U.S. Documentary Competition.
Sundance also is using the fest to spotlight some titles it's just discovered. After the main festival in January, Cooper says, "We decided to go to other festivals that were after us, pay attention to the films that weren't quite ready for us, and make sure we were covering all the turf."
Next Weekend film Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, about an autistic teen's subway adventure during Hurricane Sandy, premiered at Tribeca, while 12 O'Clock Boys, about dirt-bike racers in Baltimore (see sidebar), premiered at South by Southwest. Next Weekend is even world-premiering two comedies of its own — The Foxy Merkins, about a lesbian lotharia, and the bleakly funny instructional How to Be a Man.
(Alas, it remains to be seen if Disney's lawyers will ever again let audiences see this year's most buzzed-about Next flick, Escape From Tomorrow, a theme-park nightmare shot guerrilla-style at Disneyland and DisneyWorld.)
Cooper's dreams for the festival are as playfully combative as the movies themsel ves. "I hope they're arguing about films when they leave the theater," he says of the attendees. "I like that part of it — that's what we do here in the office all the time."
NEXT WEEKEND | Aug. 8-11 | Citywide | sundance.org/next
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes