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Sundance ‘14: A microcosm of a greater divide
Walking down Main Street of the Sundance film festival this year, it felt like there was an ever-growing gap between the east and the west side of the street. Hollywood and Independent seem to be growing further and further apart, making the Sundance film festival, and other L.A. hyped festivals like it, such an increasingly awkward phenomena. You have a festival director who wants to keep the slate as Independent, fresh, and intriguing as possible, an audience that attends who has come to expect way more “accessible” stories, and big biz owned media companies like Variety claiming the festival “suffered from too much Brooklyn” and squawking at 2 million dollar advance tags for indie films in today’s market. We feel for you Mr. Redford, we do…but you created this monster, and now it ‘s become a near perfect representation of the dichotomy within the film Industry.
This is not an East vs. West thing, but more of a continued divide in mentality and approach to film. It is exclusivity, public relations, and celebrity versus collaboration, community building, and storytelling. Old Hollywood versus new thinkers. Creatives vs. creative exploiters. I think there is some ancient adage about a poor old man with a paint brush who grew frightened he may never be able to buy paint again if something were to happen to his even older brother who convinces the village people that the old man’s art is worth money. If there is no adage, then now there is. The artist and the thinker are inherently self-critical and the Hollywood older brother is inherently opportunistic.
Ah’ the parties:
As this is more of a state of the industry post and not a review of the actual films we saw, I think it is appropriate to tell a story of this microcosm within the microcosm. I was able to attend a few LA parties and a few non-LA parties, and from my vantage point, the two settings were effortlessly distinguishable. In the same evening we attended:
At Party One: A writer/filmmaker engaged me and got me excited about new methods of audience building he had executed that I had never even considered. I offered him some biz techniques that were working for us at IndieStreet. Awesome for us.
At Party Two: After a quick intro, a girl yells out to me that they were just at a party and Aaron Paul was there. Awesome for you. She then stared waiting for a reaction or possibly a one-up name drop. So I yelled over the pumping bass, “I was just at a party with Zack Lieberman Betchhhh. (the filmmaker I had met earlier) The girl laughed at the Jesse impression, and assumed that my name drop was of some Hollywood celebrity that she just didn’t know yet. She didn’t ask who he was, because guess what, she didn’t care. And this woman is not at all representative of the creative capital in Hollywood, but is representative of the focus of Hollywood. Get the masses salivating about names and exclusivity and make that money.
3 conceivable paths from the growing divide:
At Sundance, there was panel after panel of NY and SF and other natives discussing how to navigate a sustainable career as an artist and new ways to own your product through distribution. In opposition to this progressive think tank atmosphere, the LA crowd was sending out fluff about how wow they can’t believe how low the sales were this year. Indie filmmakers better start making more relatable films they said (films that they can sell to their mass markets). God forbid an artist tells a story in their true voice that may only relate to (and knock the socks off of) 200,000 people and the content creator make the majority of the revenue from the film’s exploitation. That’s not good business for the west side of main street.
So with this continuing divide comes a few crossroads, and many individual choices will determine the aggregate path of Indie film, with SunDance as a small but representative piece. Here are three paths (or some combo of the 3) that could arise from the growing gap in philosophy.
1. Big Brother reels Independent back into a headlock, leaving Indie with a continued Identity crisis. This path would be driven by Hollywood’s acquisition of progressive production & direct-distro companies. Money talks, and if this occurrence is too prevalent in the near future at least a few amazing films will not be made that should be.
2. A new breed of middle ground filmmakers arises to fill the gap created by the divide. If the most talented of story tellers keep pushing the envelope, their stories will continue to slowly lose mass appeal. This combined with studios continuing to opt for lower risk epic franchises might create a new more clearly defined space for soft Indie products. Films with Indie feel that have formulaic stories. Old stories wrapped in hip new boxes: the middle child that isn’t as tough as the older one, and isn’t as smart as the youngest.
3. The most talented Indie filmmakers change their philosophies.
Realigning goals away from the traditional “Success = Hollywood recognition” and toward more self or group reliant success routes. We know that it is nearly impossible to not get sucked in when there is an opportunity for mass exposure. Creating a film that is finally getting some type of official stamp of approval is something we all yearn for, but if the goals when beginning your project can shift, the landscape and power of big brother will shift with it. If you center the goals around building an audience that will care about and support your future career, then the fantastical aura of Hollywood will lose its luster. A true storyteller will be at the happiest (=most successful) when they can personally see and experience his/her impact on their audience. The more new talent that finds the courage to give themselves that stamp of approval and take some control of distribution, the less reliant the Independent community as a whole will be on their older brother who really just doesn’t share the same interests.
Based on the risk-taking films at Sundance and the energetic bursting of forward thinking companies like Tugg, Heretic Films, Seed and Spark, Big Vision Empty Wallet, Candy Factory Productions and many others we had the pleasure of meeting, we are all smiling wide on the sidewalk of IndieStreet; gazing toward the west with a subtly confident smirk (that Hollywood will hopefully confuse as growing insecurity)
- Jay Webb, IndieStreet