BOXOFFICE takes a look at the status of the legendary festival.

So What Does Sundance Have To Prove This Year?

on January 15, 2009 by Ray Greene
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In a word: plenty.

That it still matters, first and foremost. Not only because the “indie” or “specialty” or what-you-will market for “art” films peaked years ago and is now basically a ghost town version of itself but because Sundance has proven to be such a negligible force within what remains of the indie market since the widely derided slate of Sundance mediocrities debuted in 2008.

Now that we’re in awards season, are there any prominent Sundance ’08 premieres that made the “best of” lists and grabbed the big awards? A case could be made for the doc Man on Wire – which is splendid and shared an IDA “best doc” trophy with Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir – but that’s about it. And all those teen-themed genre pieces ( Assassination of a High School President ), and socially progressive documentaries ( Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? ) and worshipful bios of clapped out baby boomer icons ( Gonzo ) from Sundance ‘08? They’re in the bargain DVD section at Blockbuster and can be yours for about five bucks, assuming they were even lucky enough to find a few weeks of distribution somewhere along the line.

Grasping at straws, there are those who will point to the success of Slumdog Millionaire as proof that indie cinema is alive and well. For the counter-argument, I’d personally point to the way Slumdog was nearly aborted by Warner Independent Pictures, which paid $5 million for the film in 2007 and then wanted to send it straight to video, despite director Danny Boyle’s pedigree and what now seem to be the film’s obvious crowd-pleasing assets. Fox Searchlight grabbed an interest in the picture – no surprise there, since its combination of seriousness and a basically happy ending is a formula Searchlight has ridden to riches repeatedly in recent times. And so the Slumdog saga seems like a replay from Miramax in 1999: a specialty film handled beautifully, aided and abetted by all those film critics out there who aren’t supposed to matter any more but who built the buzz and spent December decorating Slumdog with accolades as if it was a Christmas tree.

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But Sundance had nothing to do with that success, and it’s the essentially deceased Warner Independent’s cold feet and bet-hedging that is characteristic of what’s really going on in the indie world these days, which means trouble for Park City. Though Sundance wants to pretend it’s above such things, it’s high-rollers not worry warts who draw the ink and built the Sundance legend. According to Movie City News, John Sloss at Cinetic Media, who reps Sundance titles in negotiations with distributors, has cut the number of films he’s taking on this year by roughly 50 percent. His reason: There are nowhere near as many potential buyers for him to sell to.

And those that remain? They’ve grown very cautious, though they may still lose their minds and ignite a bidding war if the movie is right or the mountain air particularly thin.

In this environment, can Sundance right itself and have fresh impact?

Watch this space for details…

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