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The indie shuffle: What's next for Sundance and Fox Searchlight?

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Cooperricefox_l

Cooperricefox_l

I’m not the kind of person who tends to get overly excited by executive shuffles. Too often, at least in the culture of movies, a major change at the top will come down to: Meet the new suit, same as the old suit.

In recent weeks, though, two key shifts within the world of independent/specialty film have the feel, or at least the potential, of being something larger. They are job changes that carry the hint of evolution, the potential seeds of a new era. Here are a few thoughts as to what those changes might mean — for the movies we see, or at least the ones we end up talking about.

A few weeks ago, Geoffrey Gilmore, the director of the Sundance Film

Festival, announced that he was leaving that post to join New York’s

Tribeca Film Festival as its Chief Creative Officer. For nearly two

decades, Gilmore has reigned over Sundance — first as its chief

programmer, then as its all-around major domo and head tastemaker. The

first thing to say about Gilmore’s reign is that he is responsible, as

much as any single figure (including Robert Redford), for what Sundance

has been in the 20 years since sex, lies, and videotape first

transformed the world of independent film from a grass-roots movement

into a movie-industry revolution. If, like me, you’re a once and future

believer in everything that Sundance is — in the countless vital

movies and trail-blazing directorial careers that have emerged from it

— then Gilmore must be hailed as one of the looming architects of its

vision.

addCredit(“John Cooper: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com”)

At Sundance, Geoff loomed in other ways as well. To anyone who knows

him (as just about all of us Park City die-hards do), he can be as

contentious as he is passionate, particularly when it comes to any

journalist who has the temerity to criticize his programming decisions.

And frankly, over the years, there has been more and more questioning

— often in the form of private grumbling — on that front. It became

an iconic ritual at Sundance to see Geoff stroll to the stage in his

trademark leather jacket, which looks as if it’s been marinating in

cigarette smoke; introduce a premiere with the kind of tremulous

fawning pride one generally reserves for newborn children; and then

leave the audience to sit back and watch a movie that is so scrappy and

quirky and mediocre and forgettable that the most vivid thought it

inspires is, “Is that really the best they could come up with?”

It’s not an idle question. The general mythology at Sundance,

largely established by Gilmore, is that the programmers spend all year

dutifully separating the wheat from the chaff, and that what we all end

up seeing is, make no mistake, the best of what was submitted that

year. If a handful of the movies are lousy … well (according to the myth)

you should see the ones that didn’t make it! It is, of course, all too

easy to casually second-guess a film festival’s programming choices.

These decisions are, by nature, subjective. What matters, in the end,

isn’t any single film anyway but the ultimate balance of the good and

the middling, the traditional and the ground-breaking, the star-driven

and the obscure. On balance, Sundance has been a vigorous creative

success.

But there’s another way to look at it. For all the shakeups in

distribution (the folding of divisions like Paramount Vantage and

Warner Independent, etc.), American independent film is still, on the

most personal level, a growth industry, fueled by the low-cost

technology of videocameras and laptop editing systems (and, of course,

by the eternal patronage of prosperous relatives, even in these harsh

economic times). Each year, Sundance press releases proudly trumpet the

ever-growing number of submissions that the festival receives. This

year, there were 3,661 feature films submitted (that includes fiction

and documentary), out of which 118 were chosen for the festival. To me,

that’s a startling statistic. It says that for every feature that was

programmed at Sundance this year, there were 30 submissions you never

saw. In each case, let’s imagine, for a moment, that an entirely

different set of programmers had watched each of those 30 films. Isn’t

it possible, or maybe even likely, that they might have constructed an

entirely different festival out of the same raw material? Maybe all

those dysfunctional family quirkfests and earnest social-protest dramas

aren’t simply what filmmakers are making. Maybe they’re what a certain

set of programmers insist, year after year, on choosing.

This is a highly relevant issue, since it was announced earlier this

week that Geoff Gilmore’s replacement as the director of Sundance is

going to be John Cooper (pictured above, left), who is currently the festival’s head

programmer. In effect, he’s the No. 2 guy stepping into the No. 1 slot, the VP getting kicked up to the role of president. Cooper —

who is known, even among his friends, as “Cooper,” as if it were his

first name — is, like Gilmore, an ardent and talented tastemaker, but

his promotion is such a natural one that it makes me wonder, at least,

if it’s a little too natural, too snug — if Sundance will, in

fact, go on doing just what it’s been doing at the very moment that it

has the opportunity to re-invent itself. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times,

Cooper said that he doesn’t know if he’ll name a new lead programmer

(he called that decision his “first order of business”). He also said: “We are in the middle of a rocky, crazy time. We have to be responsive.

We have to change with the industry. But we don’t know what that means.”

Here’s what I hope it means: that John Cooper is bold enough to

bring a different spirit to Sundance. That this changing of the guard,

after two decades of Geoff Gilmore’s dominance, must be, on some level,

about seizing the moment and making it new. In the coming months, as

they’re sorting through those mountains of submitted films (will the

number top 4,000 this year?), I hope the Sundance programmers choose

some that they might not have before. I hope that they make the eyes of

audiences open all the wider with surprise.

* * *

Now here’s the kind of promotion you don’t see every day. Over the

last half dozen years, Peter Rice (pictured above, right) has become the most dynamic movie

executive in America. As the head of Fox Searchlight (distributor of Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, 28 Days Later, Once, The Wrestler, and Slumdog Millionaire),

he became, in effect, the successor to Harvey Weinstein, revamping the

model established by Harvey in the ’90s of the shrewd indie mogul who

has the taste and the marketing savvy to take terrific movies and turn

them into terrifically popular movies. Like Weinstein in his Tarantino/Crying Game/Shakespeare in Love

heyday, Rice recognized that entertainment is one of the essential

components of art, and that quality, more often than not, is the

surefire ticket to success. What’s refreshing about both these men —

I’d apply this to Weinstein even in his overly diversified present

incarnation — is that, like the old studio moguls, they’re sharks who

are so much more than bean counters. Rice made Fox Searchlight the

dominant indie studio of the 21st century by listening to his own

instincts, and that’s a lesson that all of Hollywood needs to

constantly relearn.

But now Peter Rice will demonstrate that lesson in a different way,

because he’s no longer going to be a movie executive. This week, it was

announced that he’ll take over as head of the Fox Broadcasting

division. He’s going to be a television guy. Or, at least, he will be

for a while.

In a different world, before it became conventional wisdom that television, in the age of The Simpsons, The Sopranos, Lost, and Mad Men,

might be rivaling (or even surpassing) movies as a creative medium,

this sort of transition might have looked like a sellout. Here’s what

it looks like now: Rice, who is close to Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch,

will have the opportunity to expand the adventurousness of the Fox

network, and perhaps do things in television that have never been tried

before. Surely, an executive of his moxie must be thinking of something

beyond Juno: The Sitcom. And if he makes good? This is sheer

speculation, but I predict that the job ultimately waiting for Rice

could be that of the head of 20th Century Fox (the movie division),

where he’d have the opportunity to showcase his vision of quality

equals popularity (what a concept!) on a far grander scale.

And will Fox Searchlight, which is being taken over by the gifted

Searchlight veterans Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, still be a welcome

home for movies like Sideways and The Wrestler? Can the

Peter Rice touch work without Peter Rice? As they used to say in

television, stay tuned. But the whole world of independent film should

hope that the answer is yes.

A few weeks ago, Geoffrey Gilmore, the director of the Sundance FilmFestival, announced that he was leaving that post to join New York’sTribeca Film Festival as its Chief Creative Officer. For nearly twodecades, Gilmore has reigned over Sundance — first as its chiefprogrammer, then as its all-around major domo and head tastemaker. Thefirst thing to say about Gilmore’s reign is that he is responsible, asmuch as any single figure (including Robert Redford), for what Sundancehas been in the 20 years since sex, lies, and videotape firsttransformed the world of independent film from a grass-roots movementinto a movie-industry revolution. If, like me, you’re a once and futurebeliever in everything that Sundance is — in the countless vitalmovies and trail-blazing directorial careers that have emerged from it– then Gilmore must be hailed as one of the looming architects of itsvision.

addCredit(“John Cooper: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com”)

At Sundance, Geoff loomed in other ways as well. To anyone who knowshim (as just about all of us Park City die-hards do), he can be ascontentious as he is passionate, particularly when it comes to anyjournalist who has the temerity to criticize his programming decisions.And frankly, over the years, there has been more and more questioning– often in the form of private grumbling — on that front. It becamean iconic ritual at Sundance to see Geoff stroll to the stage in histrademark leather jacket, which looks as if it’s been marinating incigarette smoke; introduce a premiere with the kind of tremulousfawning pride one generally reserves for newborn children; and thenleave the audience to sit back and watch a movie that is so scrappy andquirky and mediocre and forgettable that the most vivid thought itinspires is, “Is that really the best they could come up with?”

It’s not an idle question. The general mythology at Sundance,largely established by Gilmore, is that the programmers spend all yeardutifully separating the wheat from the chaff, and that what we all endup seeing is, make no mistake, the best of what was submitted thatyear. If a handful of the movies are lousy … well (according to the myth)you should see the ones that didn’t make it! It is, of course, all tooeasy to casually second-guess a film festival’s programming choices.These decisions are, by nature, subjective. What matters, in the end,isn’t any single film anyway but the ultimate balance of the good andthe middling, the traditional and the ground-breaking, the star-drivenand the obscure. On balance, Sundance has been a vigorous creativesuccess.

But there’s another way to look at it. For all the shakeups indistribution (the folding of divisions like Paramount Vantage andWarner Independent, etc.), American independent film is still, on themost personal level, a growth industry, fueled by the low-costtechnology of videocameras and laptop editing systems (and, of course,by the eternal patronage of prosperous relatives, even in these harsheconomic times). Each year, Sundance press releases proudly trumpet theever-growing number of submissions that the festival receives. Thisyear, there were 3,661 feature films submitted (that includes fictionand documentary), out of which 118 were chosen for the festival. To me,that’s a startling statistic. It says that for every feature that wasprogrammed at Sundance this year, there were 30 submissions you neversaw. In each case, let’s imagine, for a moment, that an entirelydifferent set of programmers had watched each of those 30 films. Isn’tit possible, or maybe even likely, that they might have constructed anentirely different festival out of the same raw material? Maybe allthose dysfunctional family quirkfests and earnest social-protest dramasaren’t simply what filmmakers are making. Maybe they’re what a certainset of programmers insist, year after year, on choosing.

This is a highly relevant issue, since it was announced earlier thisweek that Geoff Gilmore’s replacement as the director of Sundance isgoing to be John Cooper (pictured above, left), who is currently the festival’s headprogrammer. In effect, he’s the No. 2 guy stepping into the No. 1 slot, the VP getting kicked up to the role of president. Cooper –who is known, even among his friends, as “Cooper,” as if it were hisfirst name — is, like Gilmore, an ardent and talented tastemaker, buthis promotion is such a natural one that it makes me wonder, at least,if it’s a little too natural, too snug — if Sundance will, infact, go on doing just what it’s been doing at the very moment that ithas the opportunity to re-invent itself. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times,Cooper said that he doesn’t know if he’ll name a new lead programmer(he called that decision his “first order of business”). He also said: “We are in the middle of a rocky, crazy time. We have to be responsive.We have to change with the industry. But we don’t know what that means.”

Here’s what I hope it means: that John Cooper is bold enough tobring a different spirit to Sundance. That this changing of the guard,after two decades of Geoff Gilmore’s dominance, must be, on some level,about seizing the moment and making it new. In the coming months, asthey’re sorting through those mountains of submitted films (will thenumber top 4,000 this year?), I hope the Sundance programmers choosesome that they might not have before. I hope that they make the eyes ofaudiences open all the wider with surprise.

* * *

Now here’s the kind of promotion you don’t see every day. Over thelast half dozen years, Peter Rice (pictured above, right) has become the most dynamic movieexecutive in America. As the head of Fox Searchlight (distributor of Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, 28 Days Later, Once, The Wrestler, and Slumdog Millionaire),he became, in effect, the successor to Harvey Weinstein, revamping themodel established by Harvey in the ’90s of the shrewd indie mogul whohas the taste and the marketing savvy to take terrific movies and turnthem into terrifically popular movies. Like Weinstein in his Tarantino/Crying Game/Shakespeare in Loveheyday, Rice recognized that entertainment is one of the essentialcomponents of art, and that quality, more often than not, is thesurefire ticket to success. What’s refreshing about both these men –I’d apply this to Weinstein even in his overly diversified presentincarnation — is that, like the old studio moguls, they’re sharks whoare so much more than bean counters. Rice made Fox Searchlight thedominant indie studio of the 21st century by listening to his owninstincts, and that’s a lesson that all of Hollywood needs toconstantly relearn.

But now Peter Rice will demonstrate that lesson in a different way,because he’s no longer going to be a movie executive. This week, it wasannounced that he’ll take over as head of the Fox Broadcastingdivision. He’s going to be a television guy. Or, at least, he will befor a while.

In a different world, before it became conventional wisdom that television, in the age of The Simpsons, The Sopranos, Lost, and Mad Men,might be rivaling (or even surpassing) movies as a creative medium,this sort of transition might have looked like a sellout. Here’s whatit looks like now: Rice, who is close to Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch,will have the opportunity to expand the adventurousness of the Foxnetwork, and perhaps do things in television that have never been triedbefore. Surely, an executive of his moxie must be thinking of somethingbeyond Juno: The Sitcom. And if he makes good? This is sheerspeculation, but I predict that the job ultimately waiting for Ricecould be that of the head of 20th Century Fox (the movie division),where he’d have the opportunity to showcase his vision of qualityequals popularity (what a concept!) on a far grander scale.

And will Fox Searchlight, which is being taken over by the giftedSear

chlight veterans Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, still be a welcomehome for movies like Sideways and The Wrestler? Can thePeter Rice touch work without Peter Rice? As they used to say intelevision, stay tuned. But the whole world of independent film shouldhope that the answer is yes.