I came back from San Sebastian in October and immediately began preparing for Sundance. It’s funny; when I was first invited to Sundance in 1990 with Johnny Suede my reaction was hesitation. At that time Sundance was still considered by some to be the “Granola Festival” because of its affection for films about farmers, harvests and recently divorced Earth mothers. Only one year later Sundance had become the most influential and sought after Festival in the US. Now, every US distributor goes. Every US director with a 3 second film wants to go. Every agency and management team sends their legions to Park City, Utah in January to bunk in snow-covered condos and recruit the hottest new talent. Success at Sundance literally opens the door to Hollywood and the Festival has had to fight ferociously to maintain its soul.
Nowhere was that fight more obvious this year than on a stroll down Main Street. I’d arrived with my wife Jane that morning. I was wearing the “Focus On Film” button that had been included in my Welcome package along with the written suggestion to wear it. You see, what’s happened is that hundreds of companies now set up boutiques all along Main Street offering free merchandise to people. Now, let’s be clear; most of this swag is given to those who need it most, the stars and celebrities who just don’t have time to shop. But the frenzy to gather up these gifts grips everybody and apparently they don’t Focus On Film.
A huge crowd had formed outside a clothing/electronics/perfume boutique by 10 am. The first 100 people could put their name on a list that would enable them to stand in a line and have their picture taken and put on a card that would enable them to stand in a line to show it to someone who might let them into the boutique after all the stars and celebrities had finished swagging. There were at least 1500 people standing in a dense, heaving clot. A riot broke out when a woman took off her Focus on Film button and stabbed a guy in the ear with it.
Delirious had its main screening Friday afternoon at the Eccles Theatre. It was the first time the film screened in front of an American audience and it went over very well. It was great to have some of the cast there; Kevin Corrigan, David Wain and Gina Gershon. I brought them up on stage with me for the Q&A along with Buscemi who got a huge round of applause. We got press the next day including blurbs in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter saying the film was “…this year’s Little Miss Sunshine and sure to be snapped up.” Our goal had indeed been to get as many US distributors as we could to come to the screening but it was hard to tell who had shown up. Five other high-profile films looking for distribution had screened at exactly the same time.
I’ve been to Sundance now 6 times, with every one of my films. I’ve got a great affection for the Festival and sincere appreciation for everything it’s done for me and for Independent Film. But at the party for Delirious later that night I felt decidedly strange. Maybe it was the writer/director/condom designer who came up to me with 3 scripts he wanted to direct, asking if I could read them all and get them to Brad Pitt. He’d attached one of his condoms to the scripts; an item called The Insert Shot. He had others—The Tight Shot, The Push In, The Low Angle.
Walking back to the hotel with Jane and my manager, Jennifer Levine, we joined a line of people waiting to get into a party for actor Aaron Ekhart who was being honored at the Festival. I was thinking of casting him in one of my next films and Jennifer thought this might be a good way to at least say hi to him. We were on a list but the bouncers wouldn’t open the doors. Two of them set up a narrow corridor of metal barriers and bellowed for everyone to “Get behind the barriers! No one gets in until everyone gets behind the barriers!!”
So everyone shuffled backwards obediently in the frigid midnight air. “Everybody behind the barriers!!” the bouncers kept bleating. Suddenly someone yelled out, “What are we; fuckin’ rats in a maze!!” It took me a second to recognize the voice was mine. The ear-ringed, hair-frosted, goateed, tattooed agent from ADD behind me hissed tightly, “Quiet, dude. You’re gonna ruin it for everybody.”
I actually sympathize with Sundance. The innocent germ that sprang to life 25 years ago in Redford’s lab has morphed into a monster that’s turning on them. Independent film has become identical to Hollywood, governed and motivated by the same priorities; Stars, Celebrity and Box Office. As the stakes become higher the monster’s appetite becomes more and more ferocious. It staggers down Main Street cutting in line at all the free boutiques, shoveling scripts, deal memos and souls into its gaping maw. What will stop it? Perhaps it will choke to death on a film-themed condom.