Sundance Reboot

With the arrival of iTunes, Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” program and websites like Hulu and CinemaNow, there has never been a better time to watch movies on the Internet. And with video-sharing websites like YouTube and Vimeo, and a growing number of social-networking sites, filmmakers can now upload, distribute and promote their own movies in HD to a global audience. When you throw in a bad economy, it was inevitable that the film-festival circuit would take a hit, with many festivals across the nation currently dropping like flies.

Because of this, many predicted that there would be a significant drop-off in attendance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. According to The New York Times, attendance has been falling since 2006 when more than 50,000 people attended the festival. (Last year, the official count was slightly above 40,000.) But after seeing and experiencing the mobs of people jamming Main Street and the endless lines at the Eccles Theatre, a few thousand people less would do the festival some good.

Founded in 1978 by Robert Redford as a way to lure filmmakers to Utah, the Sundance Film Festival has grown into the world’s premiere independent film event, where filmmakers, studio executives and swag-grabbing celebrities (and their seekers) all converge on a small ski and resort town to network, party and, oh, yeah, watch movies. The festival has helped launch the careers of successful directors such as Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes, Michael Moore, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. But in the past several years, the festival has been criticized for having gone too “Hollywood.” With multimillion-dollar box-office successes such as The Blair Witch Project, Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine and last year’s Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, the festival has attracted not only A-list movie stars, but also celebutantes such as Paris Hilton, followed by scores of paparazzi. With a new festival director at the helm, John Cooper, Sundance 2010 wanted its indie mojo back and to focus on films that push boundaries rather than just box office.

“Being a seasoned programming team and having the support of a healthy organization afforded us the ability to take risks and rethink all programs this year, so we chose to do some things a little bit differently,” says Cooper. “We believe this makes for an exciting festival that responds to both artist and audience, one that will invigorate the independent film community.”

With a new direction from Cooper, Sundance introduced the NEXT category—a section composed of eight American films that were selected for their “innovative and original work in low- and no-budget filmmaking.” The section was created for films made for under $500,000 and replaces the artier American Spectrum. The creation of NEXT not only is Sundance’s attempt to return to its indie roots, but also to shake some of the lustre off of the Slamdance Film Festival, which last year premiered Paranormal Activity; the film has taken in over $100 million at the box office.