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Swag and Swagger

For a week in late winter, Park City, Utah, is indie filmmaking’s wildest bazaar, with people hawking their goods and hoping to stamp the tony Sundance brand on their products.

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Leaving the rousing sundance Film Festival debut of his Las Vegas gambling flick, The Cooler, Sex and the City star Ron Livingston spots a pal and asks, “Dude, get any good swag?”

It’s Christmas in January in Park City, Utah, where the pursuit of freebies is as much a part of the festival experience as screening movies and chasing deals. Festivalgoers troll Park City’s Main Street for spoils, including free TiVos, Levi’s jackets, Diesel backpacks, and black leather Roots tote bags. Standing outside the Sundance Digital Center, Party Monster co-director Randy Barbato gleefully brandishes his free Hewlett-Packard digital camera. One cold night, United Artists president Bingham Ray models the black ski parka stashed in his Sundance Film Channel party bag.

“There are as many brand executives here as acquisition executives,” observes a sales rep from Fujifilm. It makes sense for Sony, Kodak, Motorola, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard to hawk their technology to filmmakers, especially given the rise of relatively inexpensive digital technology as the sine qua non of independent filmmaking. But most of the festival’s heavy marketing was aimed at catching the celebrity-media wave. This year, more stars walked the press gauntlet at the Eccles Theatre premieres than ever—among them, Robert Downey Jr., Jessica Lange, Holly Hunter, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes, Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, actors turned directors Salma Hayek, Matt Dillon, and Campbell Scott, and the ubiquitous Patricia Clarkson, who won an acting prize for her work in three festival movies. Name actors recognize that these days, Indiewood delivers better career-making roles than Hollywood. As a result, scores of low-budget movies are going forward with stars willing to work for next to nothing.

But Sundance is really about young directors, for whom Park City is Mecca: Features submissions rose to 832 this year, compared with 750 last year. Sundance is the most important U.S. film festival and market, a hub for the New York and L.A. film communities to network and scout for talent.

Take 27-year-old David Gordon Green. All the Real Girls, Green’s endearingly awkward North Carolina romance starring Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel, arrived with distributor Sony Pictures Classics already attached. “It came from my lack of satisfaction with stories of young love,” says Green. “They’re often so polished, they don’t feel honest. I wanted to dodge clichés and put a spin on it.”

You could sense a similar, if grittier, dissatisfaction in Catherine Hardwicke (production designer on SubUrbia and Three Kings), who won the jury’s dramatic-directing prize for her assured debut feature, thirteen. The harrowing portrait of a 13-year-old girl (Once and Again’s Evan Rachel Wood) who turns, virtually overnight, from a gawky, sweatshirted adolescent who loves her mom (a stellar Holly Hunter) into a disaffected, anorexic, drug-using, tongue-piercing, thong-wearing kleptomaniac was shot in Super-16 for under $2 million. Hardwicke wrote the script a year ago in a feverish six days with Nikki Reed, the young daughter of a close friend. Hardwicke then persuaded producers Jeff Levy-Hinte and Michael London to back the true-life tale; London brought in additional funds from Working Title.


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