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2009: The year of the Sundance correction?

January 25, 2009

OBAMA/Since August, most of us have become all to familiar with the concept of a financial market “correction” in which prices for the stocks and bonds in 401K and other accounts were too high and so they “corrected” downward. The financial cost to many was on the order of 30 percent or more in those portfolios, many of us lost our jobs, and the pain continues.

We don’t mean to trivialize the personal cost of the current recession by comparing it to a film festival. No. We just bring it up because much of the talk on the snowy streets (this year, it seems there’s been more rain than snow) of Park City, Utah where the Sundance Film Festival is located, has been of a Sundance correction.

Since it took the name Sundance in 1985 with the backing of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, the SUNDANCE/festival has grown every year. At least two things have happened: 1) the films have changed by broadening their subject matter and including more stars to appeal to wider audiences, and 2) more and more companies have set up shop in Park City during the festival’s 10-day run making the goings-on around the festival — the parties, the suppers, the ”gift” giveaways — a sort of circus sideshow to serious filmgoing.

This year, amid the financial doom and gloom, many of those corporations pulled out, and while final attendance figures won’t be tallied until well after the festival officially ends today, Sunday, Jan. TELEVISION-PARIS/25, local merchants anecdotally say business is down 30-40 percent, Daily Variety reported hotel bookings were down 12 percent. But oddly, Sundance has said ticket sales were up. — and this year it added a venue. By all accounts, it seems much of the circus sideshow failed to come to town, yet serious filmgoers turned out in the numbers they always do. And they were glad.

A slower festival: “That’s  been a common commentary (this year), but not in the screening rooms,” Cary Joji Fukunaga, director of “Sin Nombre,” told Reuters after winning the award for best director of a film drama, “And so much the better. It’s all about people who want to go to films.” His sentiment seemed widespread. Most of the festivalgoers never paid for a ticket to the sideshow and didn’t want to see it.

The films: Sundance is the launch pad for many of best indie films that will be seen in theaters this coming year. “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Little Miss Sunshine” were just two examples of past Sundance hits that went on to mainstream success. But in 2008, indie films had a hard year, and a lot of pundits and industry watchers have said it was because the poor quality of movies coming out of festivals like Sundance, and Toronto, Telluride (Colo.), Cannes, Venice, Berlin and others. But at a GOLDENGLOBES/mid-festival panel, industry veterans said it had more to do with a glut of “indie” films in the market after so many years of success, as well as the cost of production and marketing rising too high, too fast. In short, the indie film market was due for a “correction.”

Were the movies of Sundance 2008 bad? “Look at what happened at the Oscars and other awards,” program director Geoffrey Gilmore told Reuters. “I’m going to look at the Oscars next year, and I think we’ll see a lot of great (festival) work there.” What was he taking about? Last year, Sundance opened with comedy “In Bruges,” and it earned star Colin Farrell a Golden Globe award for best supporting actor. At this past Thursday’s Oscar nominations, Melissa Leo earned a nod for her work in “Frozen River,” also a Sundance film. Richard Jenkins was nominated for best actor in “The Visitor,” which premiered at Toronto, and the documentary nominees featured Sundance films “Man on Wire” and “Trouble the Water.” And “Slumdog Millionaire” was a Telluride premiere.

SUNDANCE/None of them were box office hits — with the exception of “Slumdog” – but does that mean they weren’t good movies? That’s an age old question, and one we’d ask for your comments on. At the heart of the question is this: what makes a good movie: commercial success (judged by popularity and box office) or artistic success (sometimes judged by awards).

Which brings us to the last point of “correction.” Gilmore and the other Sundance programmers put forth a broad range of films among the 120 or so movies that screened here over the past 10 days. So, one might think they saw the writing on the wall of previous years where, for the most part, dark dramas about human frailties seem to make up the bulk of the films that screened here. And, in fact, when it came to opening their pocketbooks to acquire movies here, distributors favored broad comedies like “Black Dynamite,” and escapist fare such as “Adam,” or movies with star appeal like “Brooklyn’s Finest.” Yet, when it came to what actually won the Sundance awards, it was dark tale of incest and abuse, ”Push,” and immigration drama “Sin Nombre.” So, did Sundance really “correct.”SUNDANCE/INAUGURATION

We don’t really know and we won’t for months, until we can look back in retrospect. Because the wonderful thing about that question is also the wonderful thing about going to a good movie — whether it is a commercial success or an artistic success — when you walk out of a good movie, you want to talk about it. And we’ll be talking about Sundance 2009 until, well, next year at this same time.

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