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Sundance is about films — and business

But do celebs, corporate glitz outshine the ‘indie’ scene?
/ Source: NBC News correspondent

Park City, Utah, is transformed when the Sundance Film Festival comes to town. More 36,000 independent filmmakers, deal-makers and fans descend upon the skiing town, all looking for the next box office hit. But directors, actors and studio executives are not the only people reaping the rewards of this venerable festival. The massive influx of corporations, media and Hollywood celebrities have made a large impact on this once small, niche event.

In the past two decades the Sundance Film Festival has become the preeminent North American venue for independent film acquisition. While organizers maintain that the focus during the event remains on the work, it has become impossible to ignore the corporate presence, enormous parties and mainstream media during festival week. In his book “Down and Dirty Pictures,” which chronicles the rise of the independent film movement, Peter Biskind asserts that “the market was cannibalizing the festival” and that “you couldn’t walk three feet down Main Street without a goody bag being thrust into your hands.”

Doesn’t sound very “indie,” does it?

“It depends on what you define as ‘indie films’ now. They have taken on different kind of life,” explains Marian Koltai-Levine, Executive Vice President of Marketing at Fine Line Features. Koltai-Levine has been attending Sundance for 10 years. “When I first started going they were still projecting in a little hotel screening room,” she describes. “It was a much smaller festival, and it was not so commercial. Now what’s happened over time is that tons of products are being brought here—there’s the Motorola house, the this house and that house.” 

While the crowds, products and logos now ubiquitous, Sundance remains the most highly regarded of the independent film festivals. There is fierce competition for filmmakers to be included, and acquisitions executives to get their hands on the stand-out movies. It seems there is not much choice left for those seriously considering the films but to embrace the culture that comes with the new cachet of Sundance.

From Sundance to 'Brand-dance'
Daniel Katz, Vice President of Acquisitions at THINKfilm says that Sundance has “definitely changed. Some people in the business say it has become ‘Brand-dance’. Every corporation from Microsoft to Levis to the Atkins Diet is there with free merchandise to get photographed with the celebrities,” Katz said.

“But I don’t think it totally ruins the vibe. It makes it interesting because they bring so many resources – the huge parties, the publicity. Yes, itmakes Main Street more crowded, but I don’t think it interferes with discovering exciting new films and filmmakers. There is a lot of talk about parties, but once you are in the theater and the lights go out, it is all about the film”.

The celebrity driven culture of Sundance has not come without its detractors. Another festival called Slamdance emerged in Park City in 1995 as an “independent alternative” festival held during the same week of Sundance. While Sundance organizers admit it’s a bit frustrating sharing audiences with a festival that moved in on their turf, the two seem to be successful in their own ways. Both Katz and Koltai-Levine keep an eye on Slamdance while in Park City. Katz says that “you may be in a funky hotel and sitting on the floor watching a film, but more and more now you look around and see lots of film executives and agents sitting there on the floor next to you.”

So when Hollywood, corporations and the independent film world collide at Sundance, is there room for everyone at the table?

“It’s still geared toward the indie world, but I don’t think those worlds are as separate as some people would like to think,” said Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore. “The intersection between the indie world and Hollywood is more complicated than it was a few years ago”.

Under the corporate big topBut Gilmore admits the new corporate feel to the festival can be overwhelming.

“Years ago festivals were just about film culture and not really about business – but that has changed a great deal,” Gilmore said. “It’s part of the evolution – it’s at all the major festivals now. Is it a distraction? A bit. It’s not that I love seeing companies serving themselves year after year here. That is why we try to make the distinction between our sponsors, who are helping the festival, versus companies who are here only serving themselves. You will always have people who come to where the good parties are and Sundance certainly is a good party.

“The problem with the visibility of the Hollywood crowd is that that is what media reports on,” Gilmore said. “If you come to Sundance, you find it’s quite the opposite – it is very much about the films. Sundance is like the NBA draft. The place where the industry finds new talent and the connections are made.”

Of the 6,500 films submitted, 202 will be screened this week. Companies promoting clothing, gadgets, food and beauty products will all vie for the attention of thousands of celebrities and media, all while the executives scour the town for the next Quentin Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh. And the hottest ticket in town?  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a documentarybydirector/screenwriter Alex Gibney. Corporate America has officially landed at Sundance.