Utah's Sundance festival can give independent films much-needed boost

February 04, 1992|By Russell Smith | Russell Smith,Dallas Morning News

PARK CITY, Utah -- Buzz. That's the sound that film festivals make. It starts out soft, the hum of a honeybee, then builds into a cacophony of crickets -- each and every chirp an opinion. At the Sundance Film Festival, which has established itself as an important proving ground for American independent film, word of mouth can matter as much as awards.

At last year's festival, insider opinion swelled for two unconventional films with gay themes, "Poison" and "Paris Is Burning," and helped pave the way to success on the art-house circuit. Before that, "sex, lies, and videotape" was propelled into national prominence by a favorable Sundance reception.

The '92 festival, which wrapped its 11-day run Jan. 26, was the biggest yet. It filled some 40,000 theater seats (a 14 percent increase from the year before), and attracted well over 100 journalists (about a 10 percent increase) from the United States and Europe.

What remains to be seen is how this year's buzz will carry the favorites. The awards are concrete, but the talking that goes on around them is an unpredictably subjective gauge. And of course, in matters of buzz, it all depends on whom you talk to. And whom they've talked to.

* A lot of the talking goes on at "Z" Place, the Park City festival headquarters on Main Street. The '30s-era art-deco building houses the Sundance ticket office, press room and ballroom-size hospitality area, where film makers, journalists and others associated with the festival do business and relax between screenings, which begin as early as 8 in the morning and continue non-stop through a midnight program.

By day, the "Z" Place coffee flows free and in vast quantity; by night, there's usually a party -- which is usually packed -- with a cash bar and raggedly danceable local rock bands. The reasonably star-studded "Z" Place blowout on the last Friday night of the festival featured a crowd-pleasing performance by blues great Taj Mahal.

Spectators included a Hollywood contingent unusually large for this self-avowed "off-Hollywood" affair -- from Faye Dunaway and Andie MacDowell to John Cusack, Amanda Plummer and Eric Stoltz. The public was not invited, and the photo on every festival ID pass was checked carefully against its bearer at the door.

The crush at the bar can be particularly trying for a group of people who've spent all week being pampered and made to feel important by the solicitous festival staff. As a security guard working one party groused, "What a bunch of crybabies."

Around this working sector of the Sundance event (film makers, press, etc. -- as opposed to the paying public, whom we'll get to later), the films drawing favorable buzz included "Reservoir Dogs," "Zebrahead," "The Waterdance," "Johnny Suede," "Swoon" and "In the Soup." All of those were "in competition" -- which generally means the movie is small, feature-length, independently produced, may or may not have a distribution deal and is eligible in the Grand Jury and audience award-voting.

This year, out of almost 200 feature films and shorts playing the festival, only 33 -- 18 dramatic and 15 documentary -- were actually in competition.

Those tabulations were perhaps not as critical for a film such as

"Johnny Suede," which has the benefit of a rising star (Brad Pitt of "Thelma & Louise") and entered the festival with a distribution deal already in hand (with Miramax Films).

"You're never really set, ever," says "Johnny Suede" writer-director Tom DiCillo. "We made a sale to Miramax before the festival, based upon some really good success at another festival [Locarno]. But what's coming up is the American release, and there's no guarantee what's gonna happen. This festival has become much, much more important than it used to be."

Mr. DeCillo hopes it doesn't become too important.

"I'm really excited by all the interest in independent film," he says, "but I just want to make sure that it [the festival] doesn't turn into this kind of ridiculous competition as to who's good and who's bad. I find that really destructive."

The in-competition film makers, as a group, tend to establish a camaraderie during the event, and more than one expressed discomfort as the Sundance awards night drew near. By ceremony time, the atmosphere can get a bit tense. Everybody wants to win but tries not to be catty about it.

On a somewhat more glamorous level -- out of the competitive fray -- are the festival films with "premiere" status. These movies, of which there were 14 at Sundance, tend (with exceptions) to be bigger of budget, bigger in marquee value; they're looking for a showcase and, ideally, good buzz to grease the U.S. release.

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