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Scenes from Sundance

How do film directors celebrate after screening their film at the Sundance Film Festival? They call Mom.

In the Clockwork Caf‚ on Main Street in Park City, Utah, a director tried repeatedly to shoo a friend off the phone so he could make that all- important call. And no wonder. Out of 3,148 submissions, only 120 were selected.

A rumored 40,000 people attended the Festival and many people waited in line over three hours to see the flicks, particularly during the first four days. However, the Festival is far more important than the numbers indicate. Films that have come to define our culture were first discovered by the programmers at Sundance: “Boys Don’t Cry,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Hustle & Flow” and “March of the Penquins.” Sundance has become a cultural and industrial phenomenon.

Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute in 1981 after finding out the hard way that getting a film distributed in theaters was a game with rules he wasn’t privy to. In a 2002 article titled “Turning an Industry Inside Out: A Conversation with Robert Redford” in the Harvard Business Review, Redford remembers:

“In 1969, I made my first independent film, Downhill Racer – a small, character-focused movie about a Pyrrhic victory. That was when I learned about how the film industry really works. I didn’t take an actor’s salary or a producer’s fee to make the film. I sacrificed a lot; it was real guerrilla filmmaking. Merely getting the idea on screen was far more meaningful to me than money. I simply presumed that once the film was made, it would be distributed. I had no inkling that before we were even finished shooting, the studio had already written off my movie because they thought it wasn’t commercial. The film distribution system then was a closed one – the studios and theatre chains had relationships that went back 40 or 50 years. The studio simply tossed Downhill Racer away without a second thought. I broke my heart trying to get that film promoted and distributed.”

Today Redford and his team are fighting to keep the Festival true to its roots, as its success attracts the very Hollywood institutions that shunned Redford so long ago. That is partially due to Redford’s secret weapon, Geoffrey Gilmore, a 15-year veteran of the Institute and its chief film picker. Gilmore and his team have consistently selected unusual, powerful, diverse films that matter, and increasingly they are focusing on a variety of delivery mechanisms. For example, over 50 short films are available for viewing on the Sundance website this year: //festival.sundance.org/2006/watch/index.aspx.

Panel discussions open to the public discussed the new distribution options for filmmakers. Peter Broderick, a producer’s rep and consultant, opened one panel by saying, “The old rules no longer apply but the old rulers don’t know it yet.”For example, in a sign of changing times, Netflix now offers films that target an audience of just 500, and makes money doing so. Should one do a theatrical release first, or build “buzz” first through a DVD release and activist outreach programs, then air it on cable, and then release it in the theatres? Nowadays filmmakers have the option of doing some, or all sequentially, or all at the same time if they prefer.

Like many films shown at the Festival, the documentary “Black Gold,” about the plight of the Ethiopian coffee farmers who can’t even afford to finish building a school for their children, garnered a standing ovation and much more. Marc Francis, co-director and producer of the film, commented on the Sundance experience for The Harbus:

“It was a relief to see the finished film on the big screen. It represented a major moment in this three year journey that had taken us across the world. The reaction from the audience was overwhelming — at the world premiere one member of the audience wrote out a $10,000 cheque to the Coffee Union run by the main character in our film. People were alarmed by the crisis faced by coffee farmers who underpin a multi-billion dollar industry.”

“Black Gold” Editor Hugh Williams added, “Sundance was a great experience for me. The film has been editing, on and off, for nearly two years. Up until the festival it had had only small audiences, so it was a relief and very pleasant surprise that the audience reaction was so positive. Through every stage of the film-making process we are working with the audience in mind, so it’s very gratifying when an audience ‘gets it’ and likes it. I’m glad I was there to experience it.”

Sundance was a much different experience for the publicists tasked with promoting the films. The Harbus asked Clifford Ng, a publicist with DDA Public Relations, how things went at Sundance this year.

Harbus: What movies did you promote at Sundance?
Ng:
“Somebodies;” “Destricted;” “A Little Trip to Heaven;” and “Little Red Flowers.”

Harbus: What were some of the challenges you faced?
Ng:
One of the challenges we faced with these films is that we had fresh, new talent that not many people have heard about who did amazing work. When a film features celebrities people know of is one thing. When the talent is relatively unknown, you let the films speak for themselves. If people like them, then they will want to know more about them and what inspired them to do the film. We were fortunate that audiences felt strongly about our films and wanted to know more about the people who made them.

Harbus: What are the advantages of promoting a movie at Sundance?
Ng:
Some of the advantages of promoting a film at Sundance are the instant reactions you receive from a film. If the film is well received, the audience lets you know. Sundance is also known as a breeding place for new ideas and new faces to emerge as the people to watch. It was a great advantage to have our films play in Sundance because the audience could be exposed to the films and see the passion that the filmmakers and actors and everyone associated with the film had making it.

Harbus: How did your events turn out for the movies you worked on?
Ng:
All of our films were well received and had strong audience reactions. Our clients were happy with the work we produced.

Harbus: Do you have any other impressions you’d like to share?
Ng:
This was actually my very first Sundance, but not for my colleagues, and it was everything I expected. Sales people running around signing deals, publicists working extra hard for their clients and friendly faces all around Park City. Even though festivals are a lot of hard work for everybody, it brings excitement in the air. And the cold temperatures were definitely what I expected!

Although Sundance prides itself in being anti-snob, it has no power over the Hollywood types who come to make deals with the freshest and most talented directors in the world. Many of the restaurants on Main Street were closed in the evenings for private parties, making it a challenge to find a good meal. Those in the know had made reservations months in advance.

But in spite of the hassle caused by the large influx of people, Sundance Film Festival is an event to experience-from screening brilliant films by up-and-coming filmmakers to hearing the creators’ thoughts behind their work.

Coming next week: HBS alumni weigh in on Sundance and the entertainment business.

Note: These interviews were conducted on location at Park City coupled with e-mail responses to questions sent afterward.

February 6, 2006
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