Park City, Utah—Sundance 2004’s movies received the hyped-up adoration typical of the annual indie film bonanza, but it was the timely premiere of a book, Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, that created the biggest stir. The muckraking tell-all sold out at the local Park City bookstore within a matter of days and was the most coveted piece of goodie-bag swag.
On opening night, even the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford, acknowledged the growing “commerciality” of his brainchild and quipped about a “book signing” with Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein. Both comments were responses to Biskind’s portrait of Sundance as a once idealistic “Luke Skywalker” that eventually “would go over to the dark side” of Miramax-style greed and power. “The market cannibalized the festival,” Biskind writes.
Indeed, the 2004 event confirmed Sundance’s status as the world’s premier marketplace for new American films: The first few days saw one of the swiftest and most active buying sprees (and the lowest temperatures) in recent memory. In the largest such pact, rivals Miramax and Fox Searchlight jointly paid out a reported $5 million for Garden State, a quirky, dark rom-com directed by Scrubs TV star Zach Braff, starring himself and Natalie Portman. The unprecedented combined acquisition may have prevented a bidding war and abated risk down the line, but indie producer Ted Hope, a Dramatic Competition jury member, says, “I don’t think anyone benefits from compromise. Either you believe in the movie fully and take credit for it or you don’t.”
Hope’s jury—which also included Maggie Gyllenhaal, Danny Glover, Lisa Cholodenko, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes—showed such commitment by eschewing commercial concerns and giving its grand jury prize to Primer, Shane Carruth’s no-budget sci-fi head-scratcher; best directing honors to Debra Granik and a special jury prize to actress Vera Farmiga for their work on Down to the Bone, a bracing depiction of a mother of two struggling with drug addiction; and a special jury prize to Brother to Brother, Rodney Evans’s queer black drama that alternates between the Harlem Renaissance and the present. Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace, about a 17-year-old Colombian who traffics drugs to the States, won this year’s Dramatic Audience Award.
But the year’s most exuberant crowd-pleaser appeared to be Napoleon Dynamite, an Idaho-set revenge-of-the-nerds deadpan comedy that Fox Searchlight reportedly acquired for $3 million to $5 million. Many industryites questioned the outlay, and the film may be what Variety‘s Todd McCarthy calls an example of a film popular at Sundance that “can’t find its way in the real world.”
“Films were bought for a lot more money than they were worth,” echoes United Artists executive Jack Turner. “The competition was so high, in order to close a deal you needed to overspend.”
The increased competition helped account for a number of speedy deals: Walter Salles’s portrait of Che Guevara as a young man, The Motorcycle Diaries, sold within hours of its premiere for a reported $4 million to the auteur-friendly Focus Features; Lions Gate Films snapped up genre products Saw and Open Water; and Warner Bros.’ new indie label, Warner Independent Pictures, fought tooth-and-nail in the back room of a party for its first acquisition, John Curran’s tale of fractured marriages, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. According to one rival bidder, the sale involved “a lot of screaming and running around and almost coming to blows.”
In a year in which many distributors were scouring for documentaries, Sony Pictures Classics bought Stacy Peralta’s big-wave surfing history, Riding Giants, and IFC Films purchased Kevin Willmott’s what-if-the-South-had-won-the-Civil-War mock-doc, CSA: Confederate States of America. While no Bowling for Columbine-like breakthrough occurred during the festival proper, the fast-food self-portrait Super Size Me came the closest, with several companies vying for documentary directing-winner Morgan Spurlock’s 30-day McDonald’s binge.
Other nonfiction work that drew heat included music docs DIG! (winner of the grand jury prize and acquired by Palm Pictures) and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster; Scrabble competition chronicle Word Wars; and the Shopsin’s restaurant portrait, I Like Killing Flies. Newmarket’s Bob Berney, who bought Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman, a portrait of a pedophile played by Kevin Bacon, noted that acquisition fever was especially high, coming on the heels of Sundance ’03 successes such as American Splendor, The Station Agent, and Thirteen. But he doesn’t buy Biskind’s view. “Counter to the reports in [Biskind’s] book,” Berney adds, “I don’t think Sundance is a ‘sellout.’ There were a lot of edgy, dark, and very difficult independent films showcased here, and that’s what the festival is supposed to do.”
Jim McKay, who had two credits at this year’s festival—director of the Brooklyn-set ensemble Everyday People and producer of Brother to Brother—agrees that Sundance continues to program “adventurous films.” “But from the small filmmaker’s point of view,” he says, “our struggle is, how do we get seen? It’s flashier and flashier, and the inevitability is that there’s less attention to the stuff that isn’t flashy. I’m waiting for the Girls Gone Wild Sundance edition. I’m surprised they’re not already here.”
Look for Sundance film reviews next week.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 20, 2004