This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Sundance, Utah -- Up here above Provo, in the resort he has carved out of a little mountain meadow, Robert Redford is conducting an experiment that Hollywood regards with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. He has selected 10 low-budget films that are in the middle-to-late stages of preparation and invited their directors to spend the summer at Sundance working on their scripts in the company of established directors, writers and editors.
On the surface, this seems like an admirable and uncomplicated idea, a cinematic summer camp at which you bring home a screenplay instead of a woodcarving and an Indian belt. But the movie industry is not so sure. Rumors float around that Redford is starting his own studio, that his dream is to be a major producer of independent features, that just as Francis Ford Coppola wants his own major Hollywood studio, so does Redford want his own mini-studio here on the mountain he is developing.
The truth is apparently somewhere in between. Redford says he has no desire to produce personally any of the movies that are under construction at Sundance. But he might hope that eventually the Sundance Institute, a nonprofit foundation headquartered here, will become a clearinghouse for independent filmmakers working outside the studio system. There are countless summer writers' workshops nestled away in the wilds of Vermont and Iowa - why not a workshop for filmmakers?
There is one difference: The filmmakers at Sundance did not pay to attend. After their projects were selected from more than 100 entries, they were invited to settle down in residence here at the expense of Redford's institute and several foundation grants. The facilities are spartan. The filmmakers are guests in several condo-cabins squirreled away in the hills above Sundance. Meals are served buffet-style in the small lodge building, and movies are scrutinized in a garage that has been converted into a screening room. There are videotape facilities at Sundance, and some of the filmmakers are conducting trial runs of their material by taping some of their scenes.
None of the footage shot at Sundance will turn up in the finished films. It's all preparation, rehearsal and deep thought up here, reflecting Redford's personal belief that independent features will not make greater inroads at the American box office until they are (hold your breath) of higher quality.
This is probably true. Most independent American films are made on very low budgets (from a rock bottom of $20,000 for “The Whole Shootin' Match," through a middle range, of $75,000 for “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” up to a high of $1.2 million for “Heartland”). Most of them lack well-known actors, although very occasionally a famous actor will lend himself to a project. Most of them have limitations on locations, special effects, costumes, period details and scenery - because film is the most expensive art form except for grand opera.
But most of all, Redford believes, most of them could benefit from more intensive preproduction work - things like script revision, close analysis of the story, and an occasional pointed question about the worth of it all. Because independent filmmakers are often the only people who believe in their projects (or even care about them), they are sometimes inclined to treat a film as a crusade rather than as a work in progress.
This first summer at Sundance is highly tentative. Redford and his associates say they are uncertain about exactly what they hope for from the experiment. “We started this with no rigid expectations,” Redford said over lunch in his small office at Sundance. “They say I'm starting my own studio, I'm challenging the studios… Actually, I have no idea what this will turn out to be. I know that it's getting increasingly hard to get a movie well distributed in this country unless it has the potential to make millions of dollars. I think these projects here have a lot of promise, and I guess the idea is that they'll turn out better if the filmmakers have the opportunity to work on them with some experienced professionals.”
Independent filmmakers got a boost here in Utah three years ago with the founding of the U.S. Film and Video Festival, which is held every January in another ski resort, Park City, and specializes in independently produced features. Now maybe Sundance will help generate independent films to be shown at Park City.
The problem, however, is not getting a new low-budget movie shown in Park City. The problem is getting it shown anywhere else. Two weeks ago, as part of his summer-long institute, Redford held a weekend conference of most of the major exhibitors and distributors of “specialized” films -- a category that includes independent U.S. features, foreign films, “art films,” cult films, revivals and almost anything else that isn't a big-budget, first-run standard Hollywood production.
Most of the independent exhibitors and distributors accepted Redford's invitation, and it was astonishing, seeing them all together in the same place, to realize how few of them there were. The big studios and the big movies dominate play dates on most of the nation's movie screens, and there are only a handful of houses in most cities that will even consider booking a “specialized” film. Some 45 theater owners, bookers and distributors sat in the bright sunlight in the meadow at Sundance and agreed, almost without discussion, that:
- There are only seven or eight cities in North America in which a “specialized film” can get a decent booking and have any chance of a good run. They are New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco and, surprisingly, Seattle, which is the best city in the country to open a movie that's out of the ordinary.
- College campuses used to supply large audiences for foreign, art and underground movies, but these days the kids go for action blockbusters like “The Empire Strikes Back”, just like everybody else.
- Big chains are completely uninterested in booking offbeat films. Like supermarkets, they're concerned only with the turnstile. Chains with four- or six-screen multiplex theaters don't even consider booking one of the screens with specialized films.
- Unless it's a rare breakthrough like “La Cage aux Folles”, foreign films are up against a wall at the American box office. There are only about 100 theaters in America that will book a serious, subtitled film, even if it's by Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini.
- There is still a market for specialized films among local and campus film societies, but the backbone of that market, rental of movies in 16-mm. prints, is being under-minded by the widespread and illegal practice of videotaping movies and then showing them on video cassettes instead of renting them again. (Almost every campus in the country rips off films that way, it was agreed; even, though they're breaking the law.)
- Exhibitors talked about the “strong want-to-see” factor that fuels blockbuster hits like “Superman II”, contrasting it with the curious “desire not to see” that handicaps specialized films. The average moviegoer is under 25. Ten or fifteen years ago, young moviegoers were more enthusiastic about offbeat, anti-establishment independent and foreign films. Now they are much more conformist. More sophisticated big-city teen-agers who once attended films by Jean-Luc Godard have now regressed to the level of “Friday the 13th, Part 2”. Today's young filmgoers have a herd instinct and are reluctant to take a chance. In a sense, they “wear” movies like they wear clothes, attending a movie that their fashion-sense suggests will look good on them.
The outlook, everyone agreed, was gloomy. Various alternatives looked just as, gloomy. Public television stations like New York's WNET have attracted large audiences for prime-time telecasts of quite esoteric independent films, but TV exposure, an exhibitor complained, removes the aura of a “special event” that a movie must have for a theatrical booking.
The brightest ray of hope at Sundance came from Seattle, where there are 13 theaters successfully showing specialized films. (By contrast. Chicago has only two first-run houses, the Biograph and the Sandburg, two showcase operations in Facets and the Film Center, occasional specialized bookings at the Three Penny, and several repertory theaters.) Seattle used to be a lousy town to open an art film - everyone agreed - and the secret to its success was creative exhibition. Audiences were lovingly nurtured, leafleted, mailing-listed and cajoled. Lacking effective coming-attractions trailers, some exhibitors simply got up with a microphone and told their audiences what was coming next week, and what they thought about it.
No firm conclusions were reached at Sundance. Various visionary schemes were suggested to establish a national support network for independent features - but without a steady supply of good movies in the pipeline, it would have trouble supporting itself. Success stories were recited about the few breakthrough films like “Secaucus Seven,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Penitentiary,” “Gal Young Un” and a handful of foreign hits. Everyone agreed that if there were more good films, there would be larger audiences. But statements like that tended to lead into winsome silences.
Meanwhile, up in the hills in their cabins, Sundance's filmmakers-in-residence were working on their scripts. They were consulting every day with experienced professionals such as director Sydney Pollack (“They Shoot Horses, Don't They?”), screenwriter Waldo Salt (“Midnight Cowboy”), cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“The Black Stallion”) and actress Amy Robinson (“Mean Streets”). Would 10 really fine independent films come from their labors? Maybe. Maybe five. At least it is a noble experiment.
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