SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL MYTHS: ONE FILMMAKER TELLS ALL Image

We got the phone call during our final mix. As I recall, we were screaming at the producer at the time over her, well, over her general lack of producing skill. This time it concerned music. Music that she had a friend of hers compose without our input. Note: this is probably a good time to mention that when I use the word “we”, I am not using the royal “we”, although I firmly believe that the royal “we” has a place in our society. Instead, I am referring to myself and my co-writer/director. You’ll get used to it. Back to the story. As she got off the phone, she said to the caller,”Does this mean you want to put your name back on the movie?”. It was then that I suspected good news. “We’re in. We got into Sundance,” she crowed. (A brief mention: after a mediocre test screening, the co-financiers pulled their name off the film’s credits. At our Sundance premiere, they had inserted one of those cheesy sequences that triumphs their name before the movie begins.)
We got into Sundance.
Four words that every independent filmmaker wants to hear. Those people who say that Sundance isn’t that big a deal? Their films got rejected. We had found the last golden ticket and couldn’t wait to get to the chocolate factory. And no fizzy lifting drinks for us, were playing by the rules, and…Sorry. That analogy got away from me. Our little film was going to the big dance. We spent the next week screaming at our producer for, well, for not producing well, but our yells were tempered by dreams of Robert Redford and Harvey Weinstein and our new lives as Sundance entrants.
The pre-festival circuit was a lot of fun. We got the chance to meet other filmmakers at a big cocktail reception at the DGA. First off, when you get into Sundance, you get access to a lot of free food. Take advantage. Second, this is the first time you meet the members of the selection committee. It was pretty easy to tell who voted to include your film and who didn’t. A typical exchange went like this.
“Hi. I’m Miss Snooty Selection Committee Member and this is Mr. Huge Stick Up His Ass Pretentious Clown.”
“Hi. I’m So and So. I wrote and directed Movie X.”
“Oh.” Huge cloud of dust as they flee from you, trying to clean the stench of your film from their bodies. They didn’t like your film, you and what you represent.
Granted, if you’re here, somebody liked your film. In our case Geoff Gilmore and Mary Kerr went out of their way to congratulate us and make us feel as if we had accomplished something special. That was the point of the evening. To congratulate us and prepare us for the festival. Bill Condon told us about Gods and Monsters not getting picked up at the festival and how he’s got an Oscar now so take a lesson from him. Enjoy yourselves. Immerse yourselves in the films and enjoy the company of your peers. That’s what Sundance is really about. Yeah. That’s what Sundance is like for the losers whose films don’t get picked up. Forewarned, we packed our winter clothes and headed to Utah, ready for a life-changing experience.
Upon arrival in Park City, we went to the Filmmakers headquarters. I still snicker a bit when people refer to me as a filmmaker. I’ve made one movie and I don’t think that gives me the privilege of calling myself a filmmaker, but, when in Rome. This particular filmmaker met his filmmaker rep, got his filmmaker badge, was given his filmmaker housing (three nights free), got his filmmaker tickets (fifteen or twenty free tickets, I forget) and, best of all, got his free filmmaker gift bag. Now I’ve gotten free stuff before, but nothing prepared me for Sundance swag. Hats, shirts, CD’s, fleece tops, scarves, pens, pads, bags, keychains to name a few. O.K.. You can call me filmmaker now. (Another note: producers don’t get swag. Sundance is a director’s festival)
We also received our party schedule. One list from Sundance, another from our PR team. Suffice it to say, if you could plan ahead, there was no need to ever pay for food. Also, a point of advice, get to the parties early if you want swag. You don’t have to stay. Very few people do. Anyway, it’s always the same party, only the location changes.
Armed with our materials, we prepared for our first screening, that night in Salt Lake City. I know what you’re thinking. A screening in Salt Lake? That sucks. I thought that too. FIRST SUNDANCE MISCONCEPTION DEBUNKED: Salt Lake rocked. We were sold out with a long line of people waiting to get in. They all ended up getting tickets and our film faced its first real audience. Note those two words: real audience. You won’t get one in Park City. Not a chance. People in Salt Lake want to see your movie. They don’t feel obligated to see it. Park City is also where you will first be introduced to the dreaded “buzz”. More on that later. Our dear, sweet Salt Lake audience loved the movie. So much so that the only people who walked out were two fifty something men. Not our crowd. Only at Sundance will you judge a movie by how many people stayed for the whole thing. With the weight of screening number one off our shoulders, we returned to Park City for one of many parties and a celebratory beer.
DEBUNKING MYTH NUMBER TWO: It’s very easy to get booze in Park City.
Day number two we talked to our producer. Yuck. Nobody had bought our film. Double yuck. You know what they say, if your film’s going to be bought, it’ll be after your first screening. Not quite true. Yes, most bidding wars come after one screening, but we held out hope. After all, good buzz was generating about our movie.
Now’s probably a good time to talk about buzz. Buzz is that invisible force that compels people to line up hours in advance to see a movie that they know nothing about, usually only to be disappointed. Buzz will cause people to condemn a movie that they normally would enjoy. Buzz can sell your film. Buzz brings out the agents, acquisitions folk and press. Buzz is a necessary evil. Buzz is a great equalizer. It kills as easily as it glorifies.
We had some “buzz” coming into Sundance.
That’s what the Hollywood Reporter said, and why would they lie? They said that we were a film generating modest buzz. Hey, some buzz is better than no buzz. We weren’t Blair Witch or Happy, Texas (more on these two films later) but we were doing O.K.. Buzz caused our final two screening to sell out by the next day and more acquisitions bottomfeeders, I mean, people were coming to our Sunday morning screening.
DEBUNKED MYTH NUMBER THREE: Morning screenings are good. Even for a comedy. Acquisitions folk like the morning screenings because they don’t want to miss dinners and parties. Plus, dedicated movie goers will search you out and find you. They did and, again, we had a long line of waiting list people and, again, we were able to get everybody in. If somebody is willing to line up at eight thirty in the morning to see my movie, you can be damn sure that I want them to get in. Screening went well (read: I don’t recall anybody walking out, although some grinch, rather, reviewer from Entertainment Weekly, that bastion of cinematic expression, panned our movie from that screening, likening it to an episode of Two Guys and A Girl… Hey, I’ll do TV.) Screening two complete, I returned to LA to detox from an exhausting forty-eight hours. Two screenings plus a press screening plus parties and interviews made for a long weekend. That and nobody had bought our movie. There was some talk, but no buyers.
Blair Witch sold for over a million.
A brief note on Blair Witch. Word is that Artisan, who bought the movie, didn’t like it. They saw it as a way to make ten million dollars through a video release. They were not even convinced of doing a theatrical release when they bought it. In fact, acquisitions folk fled from Blair Witch screenings like me to free swag. So what if people liked it. What do they know. Hundreds of millions of dollars later, I’d have to say that the Blair Witch Project won Sundance ’99.
I returned to Sundance on Tuesday, committed to enjoying the rest of the festival. I had seen one movie over the previous three days and vowed to change that. Back at the send off party at the DGA, I met a lot of the other filmmakers and wanted to see some of their work. I distinctly recall meeting Mark Illsley who wrote and directed Happy, Texas. In fact, Mark and I crossed paths often during the first few days of the festival, from the rental car counter at the airport to various filmmaker events. We told each other that we had plans to see the other’s movie. That it sounded interesting and good luck. I saw Happy, Texas on Tuesday night. Mark never came to my movie.
On Tuesday morning, Happy, Texas was bought by Miramax for an undisclosed sum thought to be 2.7 million dollars.
When I first met Mark, he told me the story of how he got his film financed. How his family had taken out loans after repeated rejections from studios. How he had worked for years to accomplish his goal. I was genuinely happy for him on Tuesday night as I greeted him outside his screening. He said hello, but was overwhelmed by the cameras and press hanging on his every word. I faded off onto the background. I was envious as hell, but he had worked for it and I didn’t want to begrudge him his success. His movie was good. Slight, but good performances and a fun movie. I think people were more excited for the Q & A following the screening when Mark described the feeding frenzy of buyers surrounding his movie. Buzz, buzz and more buzz.
In theatrical release, Happy, Texas grossed about two million dollars.
The following day, a phone call came. Could we meet our producer at one? We could, however, she didn’t show until one thirty and we ended up missing a free lunch at a party. But I digress. She informed us that she had spent the previous night selling our movie.
She sold our movie.
Two buyers had emerged and a very modest bidding war ensued. Rogue Pictures, part of October Films (rest in peace), paid a mid six figure sum and was the proud owner of our film. They weren’t guaranteeing us a theatrical release, but they were open to it. Our movie had been picked up.
On Thursday, Variety broke the story.
That night, our final screening seemed like a victory lap. We had come to Sundance and sold our film. The world lay at our feet. Congratulatory calls flooded in. Parties became more fun. Not a lot of films were being bought, but we had been. It was time to enjoy the last few days before coming home to LA and setting the town on fire.
DEBUNKING MYTH NUMBER FOUR: Selling your film at Sundance doesn’t guarantee you anything more than some press clippings.
We returned to Hollywood to cheers and some envy. We wouldn’t want it any other way. Hollywood is an “in your face” town. As in,”We sold our film at Sundance. In your face.” Some of the calls we got were from agents and managers, while another set of calls were from producers. All were glowing. Praising us for our accomplishment. Pleading to work with us in the future. We decided to work with one of the management teams pursuing us. One company, a very large and well-known management firm, had a manager pursue us for the lone reason that he didn’t sign anyone at Sundance. When some of his peers expressed some indifference at the movie, he quickly tried to find another Sundance director. What have you done for me lately began to take on new meaning.
A couple months after Sundance, we finally heard from October Films. Their marketing rep was coming to LA to see the film and determine if it was appropriate for a theatrical release. The screening went well and we all met afterward to discuss marketing. We said that we would make ourselves available for anything to do with promoting the movie. It was then that we learned that October never really intended to have a theatrical release. They were planning to sell the film to Blockbuster Video, who would have exclusive rights to its primary release.
Straight to video.
Well…that’s not so bad. I mean, they were going to make it a featured selection and promote it and all. People all over the U.S. could rent it. That’s better than one theatre in LA and one in New York. Isn’t it? Hell, we’d already had all the press in the trades, who cares if it goes to video. Hey, Mark Illsley. You can pick up a copy at your neighborhood Blockbuster.
By the way, this was the last time we heard from anyone associated with buying or selling our movie.
Our management team was excited to get busy with us, so we decided to write another movie before signing with an agent. After all, we sold our film at Sundance. Who wouldn’t want to represent us? With a new spec script in hand we made our rounds to the agencies. During this time, we set us a screening at the DGA (who has a discounted rate for Sundance directors. I love the DGA, even though they wouldn’t let us join before we made our movie because we were a directing team and had to settle for a lame AD and got royally shafted in the editing process). We invited the cast and crew, as well as agents and TV development people. By the way, I don’t think it is common practice for the directors to have to sponsor this screening, but no one else was stepping forward. The screening went great. No one walked out.
Feedback wasn’t as positive. Only a couple of agents had any interest and they didn’t have the power to unilaterally sign us. Didn’t these people know that we were at Sundance? Didn’t they see how much a real audience liked the movie? After a few weeks, even those leads dried up. There just wasn’t much support for two guys with one film, albeit a Sundance film, under their belts. Now if we were the Blair Witch guys…
So what. No big deal. We retained the TV series rights to our movie. We’d just sell it as a sitcom and “in your face” to the agents. Who wouldn’t want to buy a sitcom based on a Sundance film bought by a mini-major studio?
All of Hollywood, it seemed.
Call back when you’ve won a few Emmy’s or your Sundance film does $100 million. If not, forget about it.
But we were in Sundance.
DEBUNKING MYTH NUMBER FIVE: No one who can give you a job where you’ll make real money gives a damn that your film was in Sundance unless it makes a lot of money (Blair Witch) or is the object of a fierce bidding war (Happy, Texas).
No one.
But we were picked up. We sold out our screenings. We had buzz. We…
We went straight to video.
And I thank God for that. We beat tremendous odds to even make a film let alone getting into Sundance and then getting picked up. People all over the U.S. could rent our little movie and I think a few did. Blockbuster never asked us to promote the movie and I have no idea how many times it was rented. I do know that the one copy of the movie in Hot Springs, Arkansas was rented as soon as it hit the shelves. My partner’s mother had to wait until it was returned to see it. We were in rarified air. We didn’t have a job or an agent but that’s not the point, now is it.
Well, yes and no. Sundance is really about the experience, not the business side of things. I’m part of an elite club and nobody can take that away from me. For ten days, my movie was one of the most important independent films in the world. I met Robert (call me Bob) Redford and Roger Ebert at a private event, thus balancing the two ends of the spectrum that creates the duality of film. I was feted at parties and privy to conferences and workshops. I met other directors who had similar stories to mine. And I accomplished something that very few people can lay claim to. More people climb Everest every year than have their films bought at Sundance. The mountain analogy is fitting for the post-Sundance days.
In the eyes of many so-called creative executives, I’ve accomplished very little and in some ways they’re right. The Sundance seal of approval is not a blank check to cash in Hollywood. Some people see the film for all it really is: a nice first effort. A building block. But no one is going to go out on a limb to help you lay more of a foundation. Hollywood doesn’t want to cultivate talent. They want the hot property, which is why some people come out of Sundance with a hit film and follow that up with very poor efforts (think Ed Burns, but who am I to cast aspersions). Maybe Bill Condon and Robert, sorry, Bob Redford were right. Sundance is not about selling your film and striking it rich.
It’s about free hats.
Jon Kean was a cowriter/director of a Sundance film in 1999. The name of the film is withheld to protect the identities of those alluded to in the story. After all they might want to work with us again one day and we can apply to Sundance and…
Screw them. The film was KILL THE MAN.

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