I've had a blank document in a folder of my computer since I came back from Sundance a year ago, slugged "why festivals."
And now, a year later, after returning from a four-day trip to Sundance 2011, I think I'm ready to address the question -- with some added insight, thanks to filmmaker Kevin Smith. He spoke after the screening of his new film, Red State, Saturday night -- and the more he talked, the more sense he made -- eventually making so much sense that he's bound to be misunderstood.
But he was saying what I've been thinking for the last few years -- which, roughly speaking, is that festivals, particularly the Sundance Film Festival, have lost the magical thing that once upon a time made them so necessary and relevant.
Smith's talk focused on the fact that, having made films for 17 years -- after being launched at the 1994 Sundance with Clerks -- he hadn't lost his interest in making movies. But he had lost his taste for the business that surrounds it. He had, he pointed out, spent about $4 million to make Red State. But the current economics of releasing a movie meant that some company would, if he was lucky, pay him $6 million for the film -- then spend $20 million to release it.
And that, Smith said, was something he found unconscionable. Why spend $20 million to market something that only cost $4 million? If you're willing to invest in marketing the film, why not invest in making it? And why turn a potentially recoupable investment into a financial Frankenstein's monster that would need to make $50 million to show a profit?
So instead, he announced that he plans to self-distribute, barnstorming big theaters with the film this spring and publicizing it through his podcast and Twitter feed, before releasing it more broadly in the fall. The costs of marketing would be nonexistent, and Smith wouldn't have to rely on an opening weekend to make or break the film; he's already got a built-in audience and a free marketing network.
After last year's Sundance -- and, to an extent, after spending several days at the one that ends this weekend -- I felt something similar. The discussion then and now (and for the past several years) was about which films would land a big sale to distributors, which movies would make the leap from festival to broad (or even arthouse) release. The talk was rarely about the quality of the film but about its commercial prospects.
In that sense, Sundance has transformed over the years from a film festival -- which implies the celebration of film and filmmakers -- into a film market, where products are bought and sold and film is the commodity that's on the block.
It's not new; Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, & videotape established a paradigm in 1989 and it's been downhill ever since.