Sundance Recap Day 6, 7, 8: False Conclusions?

I rounded out my Sundance trip with two days packed with screenings and one day of typically miserable winter air travel. I’ll spare you the sad details of my flight problems, and start with some observations:

1. Lack of Faith: Every year at Sundance, some “theme” emerges that journalists cling to en masse in some communal attempt to create a unified whole out of 200+ extremely diverse short and feature-length films made by filmmakers from all over the world. This is always folly. There might be trends in independent cinema, but they are generally pretty subtle and slow to emerge, and I can’t see how a journalist–or anyone else–can feel comfortable making bold declarations about broad trends based on the 20-30 films they see during the fest and the 4 or 5 films that happen to get the most buzz. This year everyone wants to talk about “faith” for some reason.

Well, actually, I know the reason: Sundance pushed this idea on their blog, at press conferences, etc., and if you google “Sundance, faith” you will find literally thousands of articles about how dominant the theme is in this year’s selections. “Out of 120 Sundance features scheduled to show at the Jan. 20-30 festival, 12 are overt stories about religion, or chronicle protagonists largely defined by faith,” said John Nein, senior programmer for the festival–a quote that appears in dozens if not hundreds of these articles. This theme has been the subject of articles in the NY Times, L.A. Times, Hufington Post, Miami Herald, The Christian Century…you name it.

Of course there ARE several films that deal with religion in one way or another, but no more than any other year. Just as an example, I flipped through last year’s website and was immediately able to find at least 14 features from 2010 that “are overt stories about religion”: 12th and Deleware, 8: The Mormon Proposition, Bhutto, Bilal’s Stand, Casino Jack, Four Lions, Holy Rollers, Kick in Iran, Nuumioq, The Oath, The Taqwacores, The Temptation of St. Tony, Women Without Men.

Pretty much ALL of these films are much more serious examinations of “faith” than Kevin Smith’s Red State or Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (which is a great film, but not particularly an examination of faith). So why is everyone talking about faith? There can really only be one answer: they need a hook, they are exhausted, and they have a deadline. Not a big deal, I guess, but it is a little ridiculous.

2. Boom Town: The Park City acquisition explosion is for real. As I left town there was talk that this might be the biggest year for acquisitions in Sundance history, at least in terms of the quantity of titles that are bought during the fest. Even films that haven’t been particularly well received have been getting picked up. On Thursday, Salvation Boulevard got picked up by Sony and IFC Films, despite nearly universally nasty reviews–I haven’t seen it, but the nicest thing that I have heard said about it was that it was a “lightweight farce” that “might possibly make some theatergoers chuckle.” Perfect Sense was also picked up by IFC, despite the fact that no one really seems to like it and Variety called it “a perfectly insipid sci-fi romance.”

Some other movies that have led to some raised eyebrows were The Weinstein Companies’ acquisition of My Idiot Brother and Fox Searchlight’s acquisition of Another Earth. My Idiot Brother reportedly sold for $7 million, but with an aggressive P & A commitment of another $15 mil. That means that it has to earn well north of $30 mil to make back its money, by no means a guarantee given that it got solid reviews but wasn’t a runaway hit at Sundance. It could surely hit that mark if things play out right and fans of Rudd come out to see it, but it is undoubtedly a risky move. Another Earth was generally very well-received at Sundance, but some thought that it was a good but not great drama framed by an intriguing and poetic but not terribly exciting sci-fi concept. As a drama it might not play as well as it did in the mountains and as a sci-fi film it will probably not win over the fanboys. It may just turn out that its fate will rest in the hands of the critics just like almost any other relatively slow-paced Sundance indie, and if that is so it might not live up to expectations–though you can probably make a pretty great trailer utilizing some of the film’s gorgeous imagery–that Second Earth in the sky is unforgettable.

On the one hand I find this sudden reversal in acquisition trends encouraging. On the other hand, I think that some of the films that have been picked up are pretty underwhelming, and most have pretty murky commercial prospects, in my opinion. There are a lot of strong films at Sundance this year, but I can’t say that I think that very many of those that have so far been acquired are likely to come close to duplicating the success of 2010 feel-good stories like Winter’s Bone and there certainly are no potential breakout hits like The Black Swan in the bunch. In the likely event that many of these films do fall short of box office expectations, I hope that we are spared more doom and gloom “the death of theatrical” panel discussions in 2012.

So why arefilms selling at such a brisk pace? It is pretty simple, really, and it mostly has to do with simple economics. When the economy was in freefall in late 2008-2009, it was hard to raise money to finance films, so fewer commercially viable indie films were made. Additionally, there was concern that the downturn in the economy would lead to lower box office numbers across the board (this didn’t happen, but there was no guarantee that box office numbers wouldn’t drop). Distributors also need to borrow money to finance acquisitions and releases, and that money wasn’t readily available either, so even films that were somewhat promising weren’t necessarily getting big offers. As the economy recovered, cash became available to make films and now is available to buy them. But since the distributors haven’t been that active in buying stuff over the last two years, they don’t have very many titles in their possession that they can release in the next twelve months. It is risky to spend a lot of money acquiring and promoting new films that aren’t surefire hits, but if distributors don’t release anything in the next few months, then they are guaranteeing that they will finish the year in the red or go out of business altogether. Hence, the perfect sellers market.

On the bright side, at least it appears that distributors are now able to get together some cash to buy titles, which indicates that there is money out there to spend, which has to be seen as a positive. But bad business decisions don’t do filmmakers or the industry any good in the long run, and I worry that if/when a few of these films flop we will have another backlash on our hands.

Hopefully I am wrong. And certainly it is exciting to see films that are traditionally considered hard to release are getting deals, most notably Martha Marcy May Marlene and the very recently acquired Pariah. The fate of the indie world for the next few years will be determined by the success or failure of those films, and I certainly hope that it is the more interesting films that pleasantly surprise us in the next few months.

3. The SXSW Factor?: Pretty much all the journalists and programmers I spoke with mentioned that they felt that, subconsciously or intentionally, Sundance’s 2011 selections seem to have been influenced by the recent success of films and filmmakers that were discovered first at SXSW. But, although it is true that several filmmakers who are generally thought of as SXSW types had films here–notably Joe Swanberg, David Lowery, Todd Rohal, and Mike Tully–I can’t say that I entirely agree that Sundance has done an about face in 2011. Joe Swanberg has FIVE films at some stage of production in 2010-2011, and it isn’t shocking that someone as prolific as Joe is being recognized by Sundance on some level–plus, Uncle Kent is a pretty darn good film. I have always loved the films of Todd Rohal, but compared to his previous work, there is something a bit lighter and more mainstream-funny about The Catechism Cataclysm, and it isn’t too hard to understand why Sundance would find this film a little more their style than The Guatemalan Handshake.

But this much I will say: The Next section was considerably stronger than it was last year (my favorite entry being the batshit loony Bellflower) and the Park City at Midnight section featured many more interesting and risk-taking films than it usually does. These two sections were almost entirely devoid of the B-List actors and coming of age stories that often fill out the back-end of the Sundance roster, and to that extent it does appear that Sundance—at least for one year—is paying closer attention to the truly low-budget American indie filmmakers that have been chipping away at the edges of cinematic convention over the last 5 years or so. Of course, it is also possible that there just weren’t that many decent mainstream horror films submitted this year, so maybe they simply turned to more unusual fare to fill out their slate. Only time will tell, I suppose, but it was a welcome change to see some more bizarre films getting their chance to reach an audience in Park City.