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Defining the Undefinable

Each year as the Sundance Film Festival ends, it’s subjected to scrutiny — too many people, not enough tickets, too much glamour, not enough soul. Repeat attendees wistfully recall the early days, and everybody, both in Park City and beyond, has something to say about whether or not the festival has finally sold out. Such criticism irks festival director Geoff Gilmore, who last October sat down to talk about the evolution of the festival and its role within the larger Sundance Institute, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. He spoke for an hour with his characteristic vehemence. Below are excerpts from the conversation:

L.A. WEEKLY: There are critics who say Sundance has changed and even abandoned its original mandate. How would you say the festival has changed over the years?

GEOFF GILMORE: We haven’t taken an agenda and stuck to that agenda blindly for 25 years. We’ve evolved, and we evolved as a festival a great deal by thinking about what was going on in the world around us. But there’s a perception of Sundance among critics that we’ve changed our agenda. That we no longer are what we set out to become. That we’re not about independent filmmakers as the archetypical independent filmmaker anymore. And this is where I get passionate and say that’s just not true. The world of independent film has changed. And we’ve changed to accommodate that world.

There’s a phrase that I always like to use: “changing the sense of the possible.” That’s what you open up when you start talking about changing the marketplace. We’re not the guys who do it — the companies are. But we’ve changed the sense of the possible that they can adapt. When you saw a film go out and make $65 million worldwide that cost $1 million to make, that raised people’s interest. When you got to Pulp Fiction and you hit $100 million, all of a sudden there was the idea that independent filmmaking was part of an evolution that could move into other arenas, that could move into the industry and become a part of that industry. Before, you had the Hollywood industry here and the independent industry there, and the idea of how they started to overlap and intersect and move back and forth across different borders — that’s the evolution of independent film. And it hasn’t been in one direction.

How does Sundance function in relationship to other festivals?

I think we’ve helped change festivals by giving [new] perspectives on what is in a festival, by thinking about the aesthetics of what you play in a festival, by talking about the range of different things that you deal with. We’re casual — we’re filmmaker-oriented, not star-oriented, and we don’t focus on auteurs, but we’ve created a place inside of [the festival] in which we have auteurs and stars. The question of what that means is something to talk about.

Sometimes we’re on the cutting edge, but not always. We don’t necessarily say that we established the arena of independent film, although we helped define it. When people talk about the inability to define independent film, that’s something that I’m actually happy with. That sense of ambivalence, that sense of occlusion — that’s something I’m more interested in in terms of independent film than in a singular image, a pure image, or an ideal of what I think it should be.

Sundance seems to function as a screen for the projections of so many people’s fantasies regarding what independent film is, and even what a festival should be. How would you say you’ve dealt with that?

Independent film is always faced by this contradiction: We want to judge you by how you perform in the marketplace, but wait, if you really are commercially driven, you’re no longer independent film. That’s the exact problem. You can’t criticize a film for having problems in the marketplace when it’s part of that aesthetic to challenge people. If you’re challenging people, you’re not making yourself commercial.

Sundance has been incredibly important in legitimizing things. It was incredibly important in legitimizing the aesthetics of gay and lesbian work; incredibly important in legitimizing low-budget, first-time feature makers. We were criticized for this, and people asked, “Why don’t you run a competition the way Cannes does? Why don’t you make it the ‘best of the best’?” And our response has always been “No, we actually like the competition we have,” with the realization that it involves flawed work, with the realization that it involves first-time filmmakers, with the realization that it involves discovery — because there’s freshness, because there’s originality, because there’s diversity, because there’s uniqueness. And that’s more important to me than waving the flag of aesthetic accomplishment over Cassavetes for 10 years in a row.