Sure, it's great that American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies have restored and revived so many Hollywood classics. And no one can fault Bravo for showing interviews from the Actors Studio, or the Independent Film Channel for showing, again, Stranger Than Paradise. But the Sundance Channel is something different. At last.
Up and running since February 1996 and available nationwide in select markets, the Sundance Channel is the latest in Robert Redford's bid to become the king of indie film, the latest star in a firmament that includes the Sundance Festival and the Sundance Institute, and may soon include a chain of theaters. World-premiere works from four independent filmmakers are indicative of the channel's intentions. Each of the directors and their films was pursued aggressively by the Sundance Channel, and each represents the kind of programming Redford has committed to put before the public. Allison Barnett was a fledgling screenwriter doing rewrites for studio films but unable to get his own off the ground. German producers and Japanese financing helped him make his $650,000 feature debut, Red Meat, an aggressively unsentimental story about men and women and what they do to each other. Despite a cast that includes Jennifer Grey and Lara Flynn Boyle, Barnett could not get distribution. One studio told him they loved his movie but did not think it had a chance of earning $10 million – and that was their minimum requirement for releasing an independent film. Others told him it was too tough, too much what Barnett calls “an unblinking look at one character's misogyny.” Everyone passed. Until Sundance stepped up.
Cheryl Dunye is a Philadelphia filmmaker who became obsessed with the black actress she calls “the Watermelon Woman,” a character actor who appeared in multiple films, in uncredited parts, in the 1950s. Her documentary-style film of the same name investigates the actress's identity and, ultimately, the filmmaker's own – as a black woman, a lesbian and a filmmaker. No one expressed any confidence in the film until Sundance stepped up.
Cinque Lee is Spike Lee's brother, which in Hollywood bought him . . . nothing. He co-produced and -wrote the screenplay for Spike's Crooklyn and then used his Crooklyn earnings to shoot Nowhere Fast, a gritty, violent feature about lowlife New York with 26 speaking parts for 26 of his friends. He finished the film in the summer of 1996, for a total of $29,000, and took it on the road to festivals in Germany, the Netherlands, South America and elsewere. It was admired, but not sufficiently to draw distribution. Sundance reps saw the film and, Lee says, made their pitch. “Without this exposure,” Lee says, “this film would just die.”
Allison Anders (who would go on to make Gas, Food, Lodging and Grace of My Heart) was an undergraduate at UCLA film school in 1983, when she and her boyfriend at the time, Kurt Voss, and their friend Dean Lent decided to make a feature film. They had $2,000, and they were hip to the early-'80s music scene. They knew guys like X's John Doe and the Blasters' Dave Alvin, so they filmed them for a movie called Border Radio and spent the next four years trying to finish the film. Little distribution deals got the film out to a few cities (the L.A. Weekly, under Craig Lee's byline, was the first publication to write about it), and then it died. Until Geoff Gilmore, now director of the Sundance Film Festival and in 1983 a UCLA classmate of Anders', asked Anders for permission to include it as part of a Sundance Channel event called “Docs That Rock.”
Nowhere Fast and Watermelon Woman will make their world debuts in August. Red Meat will air in November. Border Radio first aired in early July and will be making a repeat appearance. And these are just four examples of the movies that the Sundance Channel is programming. There are many, many more like them – many original productions that simply would not, without Sundance, see the light of screen, small, silver or otherwise.
“These are 'discovery' films, films that you see here or don't see at all,” says Tom Harbeck, the Sundance Channel's executive vice president of programming. “The Sundance mission has always been to provide a place for filmmakers' work to be seen. The channel is that idea on steroids.”
The channel itself could use some steroids. Though Sundance is a premium service, showing movies uncut and commercial-free, it has had a tough time finding channel space around the country, and lags behind its competitors. HBO reaches about 30 million homes, Showtime about 18.6 million, and IFC and Bravo somewhat less. So far, the Sundance Channel's penetration is 13 million homes, Harbeck says. It will need more than that to survive.
In September the channel will program five films starring Parker Posey, the queen of the indie scene, alongside a two-hour interview with the actress. If that doesn't bring 'em in, they can have a shot at Cinque Lee's next film. “It's about a teenage runaway in New York,” Lee says, “and I'm shooting it for $5,000. I don't know how I'm gonna do that. But it's all I got.”