Tomorrow I leave Los Angeles for Park City, Utah, where I'll attend and report on the Sundance Film Festival for the seventh time in as many years. As a film critic and the editor of the Weekly's Film section, attending major film festivals (I go to Sundance, Cannes and Toronto) is the most important part of my job. It's at these three events, spread more or less equidistantly throughout the year, that independently-produced features, documentaries and foreign films are given their best opportunity to compete with Hollywood product for the attention of the industry, the media — and, subsequently, audiences.
Sundance, in particular, by virtue of its date more than its offerings, plays an important role in setting the conversation for the rest of the calendar year. By attending, you get to watch that conversation come together in real time, and witness how and why certain films float to the top — for better or for worse — and perhaps more importantly, get some insight into which films are left behind, and why.
This is what's exciting about a festival like Sundance, where the majority of the films are world premieres: the element of surprise, the potential of discovery. And it's an allure that is diminishes or even destroyed by the exhaustive pre-festival handicapping and preview coverage that's now omnipresent in the days leading up to the festival.
Media outlets race one another to interview Sundance filmmakers; to game the “buzz” sweepstakes by reducing the 100-something film lineup to “25 Must-See Films” — often sight unseen; to breathlessly speculate as to which studio's struggling “arthouse” division will acquire which romantic comedy starring which TV actress and/or “resurgent” movie star. Is anybody actually reading this stuff aside from other journalists on their way to Sundance, or maybe publicists who might be able to exploit a blogger's naive enthusiasm for a pullquote? Does anybody else care?
I don't. So this year, I'm doing it differently.
In the past, I've participated in the Sundance preview game — I've been part of the problem. And I've found that it's made me less enthusiastic about attending the actual festival. When you arrive in Park City with the following ten days scheduled to death based on information culled from the festival's catalog, press releases issued by producers and publicists, and other journalists' watch lists — all of them biased sources to some extent — the festival experience stops being about discovery, and starts being about diligence. It becomes ten days of ticking off a to-do list. I've been doing it that way for as long as I've been covering film festivals, and it doesn't make me happy, and I don't think it makes for particularly good writing or productive conversation.
And so I'm approaching this year's Sundance as an experiment. When I arrive in Park City on Thursday night, I will be entering the festival virtually blind — I've not read the Festival's catalog or press releases, I haven't watched screeners or gone to pre-festival screenings or talked to publicists about their slates (other than to tell them about this experiment and that I didn't want to talk to them before the festival about their slates). I've tried to remain a blank slate, so that I'm better equipped to give all of Sundance's offerings the benefit of the doubt, and judge them on their merits (or lack thereof).
Because I live in a community in which Sundance matters to a lot of people, I haven't been able to remain totally clueless — I am aware of the existence of a handful of films. I know that the festival is screening a documentary about LCD Soundsystem, as well as new films directed by Antonio Campos and Quentin Dupieux — and that's all I know about those films. And that's pretty much it.
Again, it's an experiment. It may turn out to be a disaster. We'll know soon enough. Keep an eye on the Sundance category of this blog for my dispatches; I'll also be tweeting @karinalongworth.