I can testify that when you go to a film festival, and someone inquires about how the movies were that year, the answer you end up giving — “Really terrific!” “Lousy!” “They were okay!” — is often dictated by exactly one movie. If you saw something that totally knocked you out, the sort of film that you think is going to get major play in the real world, and you’re already dusting off a place on your 10 Best list for it, then that one movie can determine your entire perception of the festival. That’s what happened to me last year at Sundance when I saw Fruitvale (they hadn’t added the Station yet). The fact that you’ve witnessed a certified home run makes the festival feel to you, in hindsight, like…well, a baseball game in which your team hit a home run. It’s more than a good movie; it’s why you came — to see an unheralded filmmaker knock one out of the park. A single movie that rocks your world can define, year in and year out, the Sundance experience — the reason that a festival like this one exists. Some of the films I’ve seen at Sundance that have had that effect include Crumb (1995), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), Buffalo 66 (1998), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Chuck & Buck (2000), Wet Hot American Summer (2001), American Splendor (2003), Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Thirteen (2003), Hustle & Flow (2005), Precious (2009), and Fruitvale (2013).
For years, the deals at Sundance operated in a more-or-less comparable way. Just because a movie got snapped up by a distributor for a whole lot of money didn’t mean, of course, that it was a great movie. Yet those headline-making deals, whether they proved to be brilliant (Shine, Hustle & Flow, Little Miss Sunshine) or foolhardy (The Spitfire Grill and Happy, Texas), had a way of defining the vital indie nexus of art and commerce in a way that made those deals seem almost mythological. Even when it turned out that someone had spent way too much money (like, say, the $8 million that Paramount Vantage forked over in 2007 for the unwatchably inept ’80s-nostalgia dud Son of Rambow), it’s important to remember: No one knew, during the festival, that that deal was going to prove insane. (Well, okay, a few of us did.) And so even though the purchase price turned out to be nothing more or less than a myopic example of Hollywood corporate decision-making at its most go-go narcissistic, it still had the effect of lending stature to Sundance, of saying: Look, here’s the place where deals like this can happen. Sundance, let’s be clear, has never been about greed (it really hasn’t), but the fact that the festival, every year for at least 20 years, has featured this show-me-the-money ritual of distributors lining up to anoint a film’s crossover potential with the mighty sword of their purchase price has been an essential part of what makes Sundance a (healthy) adjunct to Hollywood. Movies, by nature, are a big business (they cost way too much not to be), and Sundance only gains in credibility by presenting itself as a sexy economic market of art.
I bring all this up to make the point that the go-go years at Sundance still cast a mighty shadow. The $10 million paid for a movie like, say, Little Miss Sunshine was more than a very smart deal. It captured, in its way, the metaphysic of indie film — the fact that there are “small” movies that are also “big,” that they win over mainstream taste by redefining what the mainstream is. And because Sundance, for so long, was a place where a deal like that one could happen (it was also a lure to young filmmakers: Come to Sundance! You might win the lottery!), the fact that the deal-making is now far more sober and restrained, with into-the-night bidding wars mostly receding into the Wild West indie past, means that Sundance can seem like a less romantic place. I think that accounts for a certain noisy subset of nay-sayers at this year’s festival. They were sniping about “quality” (or what they claimed was the lack of it), but really, they were looking for a vicarious business high that wasn’t there. The festival is now wised up and earthbound: not a lottery but a buyer’s market. No one is spending $10 million on the flavor of the moment. It’s clear that indie film, as a box-office game, is generally no longer worth that kind of investment.
And that can feed the perception that Sundance has become a place of lowered expectations and increasingly marginal art. A movie like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, one of the most celebrated films of this year’s festival (it was filmed over 11 years, with a young actor literally growing up on camera), is independent filmmaking at its most adventurous and accomplished, yet as soon as the IFC logo flashed on screen (they financed the film and will be distributing it), I thought: Okay, this is going to be a modest financial success, at best. It is, in all likelihood, not going to be playing at a megaplex near you. Of course, it may be available on VOD, which means that a great many people could wind up seeing it. And that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?
It is indeed, and that’s where the deal-making essence of Sundance has, I think, undergone an extraordinarily vital and healthy evolution. If you wanted to track the sexy deals this year, you could easily find them — provided that you were willing to consider a deal “sexy” that wasn’t necessarily breaking the bank. The first one I noticed was the $3 million that Sony Pictures Classics shelled out for Whiplash, the ecstatically received opening-night film in which Miles Teller plays an ambitious jazz drummer facing off against J.K. Simmons as a scary-inspiring musical drill sergeant. Okay, $3 million doesn’t sound like that much money; it is also not chump change. But Sony Pictures Classics, a company that has survived, and thrived, and ruled by being extremely judicious about what it spends, doesn’t toss away that kind of sum casually, and what I felt was there in the purchase price was the company saying: We believe in this film. We’re going to make it happen. And that, in its way, is worth its weight in gold.
It is also a prototype for the kind of deal that happened, over and over again, at this year’s festival. Take the $1.3 million spent by Lionsgate and CNN to acquire Dinosaur 13, a political-archaeological documentary about the fight over a newly unearthed set of Tyrannosaurus rex bones. That is not, once again, any sort of record-breaking figure. Yet it represents a major vote of confidence in the visibility potential of a documentary that might otherwise have been a blip on the radar — and that will now be presented, by the same company that releases the Hunger Games films, as a front-and-center piece of entertainment. The CNN factor shouldn’t be underestimated. What it reflects is the changing nature of how documentaries are seen. CNN, in the last year, has became a singularly exciting player in the documentary market, showcasing such films as Blackfish and — one of the the most important documentaries of last year — the mind-opening pro-nuclear-power doc Pandora’s Promise. Here’s a case where the usual yardstick of box-office grosses is a tricky one to measure (if you’re a cable subscriber, you can simply watch the movie on CNN for free). Yet just look at how many people probably saw Blackfish or Pandora’s Promise on CNN, and will now probably see Dinosaur 13 or the superb Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself (also in this year’s CNN stable), in a single evening. (If that number of viewers was just half a million, it would mean that more eyeballs watched any of those films in one night than saw the top-grossing theatrical documentary of last year.)
During the last week, as Sundance has rolled forward, the major purchases have kept piling up: deals for movies from the ocular sci-fi mind-bender I, Origins (bought by the redoubtable Fox Searchlight) to the spiky-tender gay family drama Love Is Strange (Sony Pictures Classics) to the Michael Fassbender-in-a-mask cult movie Frank (Magnolia) to the galvanizingly fun and touching Kristen Wiig-Bill Hader brother-sister drama The Skeleton Twins (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions) to Lynn Shelton’s quirky-meets-commercial romcom Laggies (A24) to Zach Braff’s middle-aged-crazy follow-up to Garden State, Wish I Was Here (Focus Features). The purchase prices haven’t been shabby, and they haven’t been record-breaking, either. What they represent, in their way, is the all too real world of post-economic-meltdown America merged with a moviegoing populace that is probably more eager to seek out more varieties of movies in more different ways than, perhaps, ever before. A disparate, competitive indie movie industry that is working — and spending — to meet that public halfway sounds, to me, like the definition of a good deal.