Hollywood hits Sundance in search of little movies with big promise

Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, the spectre of Shine hung over the opening days of the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, the annual running of the cinematic bulls in the crowded, snow-packed streets of Park City, Utah. Though it now stands poised to grab a bunch of Oscar nominations, Shine was just an unheralded Australian film a year ago when it first burst upon the Sundance scene, triggering one of the most dramatic bidding wars in the festival’s history. So this year, with a record 13,000 registrants — including more than 500 media types from as far away as China and Finland — hitting the resort town, adrenaline was pumping. ”What’s the buzz?” was the most frequently, and desperately, asked question in the search for the next Welcome to the Dollhouse or Big Night or Spitfire Grill — all discoveries made at last year’s festival.

But for Sundance ’97, the most immediate buzz — ”I hate that word,” festival godfather Robert Redford protested right at the starting gate — is that there was no buzz at all. The 183 movies screened during the 10-day sampling of independent cinema (sponsored in part by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) not only defied easy categorization but also flummoxed potential distributors, the press, and even civilian moviegoers.

THE MOVIES: True to programming director Geoffrey Gilmore’s promise of ”a great deal of diversity,” the unruly class of ’97 resisted labels: True, there were slacker movies, girl-guy-girl triangle movies, incest movies, and movies — like David Lynch’s Lost Highway — that nobody could figure out.

Some trends were discernible: There was so much male nudity on display that at times the festival seemed more like a course in comparative anatomy. But as a number of films failed to deliver on their pre-festival hype — ”We caught the buzz backlash,” admitted coscreenwriter Karen Sprecher, when her downbeat Clockwatchers disappointed distributors who were expecting more of a 9 to 5-ish comedy — the trend spotters simply threw up their hands. Even by festival’s end, when everyone (except Redford, kept away by an avalanche) assembled for the awards ceremony, the winners were anyone’s guess. Given all the Gen-X-packed films in competition, few predicted that the drama jury would award top honors to a genuine sleeper: Sunday, a nuanced, middle-aged drama about the necessity of illusion starring David Suchet (PBS’ Hercule Poirot). ”It’s been like running a marathon,” said stunned director Jonathan Nossiter. ”It requires this incredible emotional and physical endurance, which is good because it mirrors the act of making a film.”

The documentary jury’s debate was apparently more heated. Paradise Lost director Joe Berlinger argued long and hard for Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, about the shocking performance artist. ”I used up a lot of political capital on that,” he confessed, finally nailing a special award for the much-talked-about film when his fellow jurors insisted the Grand Jury Prize go to Girls Like Us, a group portrait of four South Philadelphia high schoolers.

THE DEALS: ”It’s hard to sit there with a film you care about,” lamented actor David Morse, ”and see people racing out [during the screening] because they have to see three other films.” But after the initial letdown, hit-hungry distributors began to get with the program and find some potential hits among the many noncommercial offerings.

Mark Waters, who directed The House of Yes, a gothic family drama about an incestuous brother and sister, was elated to win an audience with Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein. ”We had the Sundance dream of being summoned to the mountain to meet the king,” he said. ”We drove all the way up to his lair, waited in one antechamber after another, then got called in to pay our respects.” Miramax’s $1.9 million purchase of The House of Yes began a mini-shopping spree that was followed by Trimark’s $3 million bid for Box of Moonlight, Fox Searchlight’s $2.5 million purchase of Star Maps, Sony Pictures Classics’ $1 million buy of the road movie Dream With the Fishes, and Gramercy’s low-seven-figure acquisition of Going All the Way. But at press time, three of Sundance’s biggest successes—Sunday; the urban teen drama Hurricane; and a controversial portrait of two misogynistic buddies, In the Company of Men—still didn’t have American distributors. Given the six awards the films took between them, however, that’s likely to change.

THE PARTIES: ”It’s the same thing as a shoe convention, only it’s more glamorous,” said John Waters, who happily hitchhiked from one end of town to the other before a midnight tribute to a new, 25th-anniversary edition of his still brazenly rude Pink Flamingos. And Fargo‘s William H. Macy (costar of festival competitor Colin Fitz) didn’t mind that it took him two hours to walk a few blocks down Main Street—”I knew almost everyone on the street.” Probably the best assessment of the frenzied partygoing was offered by Alyssa Milano, who costars with Robert Downey Jr. in the absurdist (and inept, said critics) comedy Hugo Pool: ”It’s sort of weird that everyone is rushing to get to the next party when all the same people are going to eventually be at the next party.”

Fittingly, free-spirited actress Parker Posey, of 1995’s Party Girl, was nearly omnipresent. She appeared in three films—as a publicist (another ubiquitous Sundance type) in subUrbia; as a temp in Clockwatchers; and as a Jackie Onassis-obsessed manic-depressive in The House of Yes, a star-making performance that earned her the festival’s only acting prize. Nearing exhaustion, she gasped, ”I’m Sun-damaged. That’s when Sundance takes over and it’s overwhelming. I feel like I’ve been here either for a year or a day. It’s totally bizarre.”

THE PROBLEMS: Redford must have certainly known what she meant, since he was feeling a little Sun-damaged himself. ”When you have the media coming here, trying to quickly size up what’s hot, what’s not, based on its commercial appeal, that’s not fair to the filmmakers,” he complained. But some of Sundance’s flaws were of its own making: The jam-packed screening venues experienced unnerving projection and sound problems. Director Miguel Arteta literally stopped one showing of his Star Maps by standing in front of the projection booth until a sound problem was fixed. Director Arthur Dong—who later laughed, ”I’m the poster boy of disasters”—had to stop a screening of his documentary Licensed to Kill three times when a piece of dirt garbled its soundtrack.

Some accused Redford of floating obliviously above the fray. Joked Denis Leary, after unveiling his new thriller The Bitter End: “Does Bob Redford really run this thing? I’m convinced he’s not even connected. There’s a blond guy who walks 50 yards away and waves at you.”

Redford bridled. “I welcome criticism,” he said, “but when it reaches the point that it starts to feel personal, that bothers me. I’m very much in touch, but some of it is out of control.” And he was aware that size does count: “I would not like to see the festival get any bigger in terms of population. We’re getting a swelling of the numbers that are not filmmakers. They are friends of, wannabes, would-bes, left turns, kookabees, people out on parole—everything is coming our way.”

THE COMEBACK: It’s one of Sundance’s paradoxes that no edition of the festival can truly be judged until years later, when the spotlighted talents either develop or dwindle. Which is why the premiere of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, which Miramax will release March 28, was in many ways this year’s emotional high point. After seeing his proudly low-rent Clerks become one of the peaks of the 1994 festival, Smith struck out with his crass sophomore effort, Mallrats. So the debut of his $250,000 Chasing Amy—an unconventional boy-meets-girl-who-loves-girls love story—needed to seduce the skeptics. That it did, winning a standing ovation. Within the course of one evening, Smith was rehabilitated in the eyes of his fellow filmmakers.

“I feel tremendous. I feel vindicated,” he smiled. Echoed his star, Joey Lauren Adams: “My stomach was in knots. But at the screening, you could just feel it. They were truly feeling the movie. It made it all worthwhile. Before, I was like, I want to go home. I hate this weather. You can’t park anywhere. And now I love Sundance!” With that, Sundance ’97 achieved a genuine shining—if not quite Shine-ing–moment.

(With additional reporting by David Hochman, Dave Karger, Tricia Laine, and Chris Nashawaty)