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.
Fox Searchlight wanted the movie so badly that after several days of tense negotiations, the company not only put up almost $2 million but broke precedent and shared its presentation credit with Working Title, as well as the all-important option on Hardwicke’s next film. “I heard a 60-year-old lady call her 85-year-old mom and apologize for the way she behaved when she was a teenager,” says Hardwicke. “What more can you ask than that?”
Producer John Lyons (Boogie Nights, Austin Powers) endured his own hellish roller-coaster ride to get Pieces of April made. Three times, the movie was ready to go only to be canceled. Bingham Ray gave it the green light at $6 million with Katie Holmes and, yes, Clarkson, but UA’s numbers-crunching parent, MGM, killed it. So Lyons turned to the Independent Film Channel’s digital-production arm, InDiGent (Tadpole, Personal Velocity), which agreed to fund it as a cheaper digital movie.
In the end, it was worth the ride: At the first Eccles screening, writer turned director Peter Hedges (About a Boy, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) wept as he described his mission to pay tribute to his mother after she died of cancer. “I opened a file on my computer and found notes for a story about a girl named April trying to cook a turkey for her dying mother,” Hedges told the crowd. “I realized this was the story I was supposed to tell. I’m so tired of crying. I cried every day on the set.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“Name actors recognize that these days, Indiewood delivers better career-making roles than Hollywood.”
After the screening, InDiGent lawyer John Sloss loped out of the Eccles, his shoulders stooped, clutching his cell. Offers were pouring in. Mindful of having sold the digital film Tadpole to Miramax for $5 million the year before only to have it belly-flop, Sloss downplayed the winning bid, suggesting that UA’s Ray had nabbed Pieces of April with a $3.5 million advance for world rights. In fact, UA and InDiGent cut a separate deal for the rest of the world.
Similarly, Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein jetted in to close the deal to release the sweet friendship comedy The Station Agent, for which actor-playwright Tom McCarthy won a screenwriting prize. Miramax then lowballed the deal, announcing that it had paid just $1.5 million for the film, though Sloss actually got far more than that. “Sundance is a good environment for acting irrationally,” he says. “There is a press and public backlash against a film that is perceived to have sold for too much.”
Still looking for a buyer at the festival’s end was New York’s favorite cross-dresser, Charles Busch, who takes “the grande dame Guignol” approach with the film version of his hilarious play Die Mommie Die. Busch nabbed a Sundance acting prize for his throaty reincarnation of aging scream queens Joan and Bette. “There were times making the movie when I felt like Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that I, Charles Busch, had twisted reality.”
As always, the festival supplied a feast of mind-bending documentaries, including Andrew Jarecki’s provocative portrait of a family in crisis, Capturing the Friedmans (the Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner), producer Alex Gibney’s public-TV series The Blues, and Oliver Stone’s debut in the genre, Comandante, about Fidel Castro. And there was Born Rich, directed by 23-year-old Johnson & Johnson scion and NYU history major Jamie Johnson, with help from his trust fund. Johnson interviewed pals—including pouty-lipped Ivanka Trump, wistful Whitney and Vanderbilt heir Josiah Hornblower, and Haverford student S. I. Newhouse IV—about living large. Johnson plans to revisit everyone in five years, he says, to “see where they are and where I am.”
One person unimpressed with the festival madness was dyspeptic comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, who was nevertheless delighted with the film about his life, American Splendor. The Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner is an inventive mix of documentary, fiction, and animation directed by rookies Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. “Everything clicked,” Pekar says, adding, “A lot of movies suck.” As HBO closed a deal with Newmarket to release the movie, Pekar prepared to return home to Cleveland: His swag? “I picked up some free cans of Campbell’s soup.”