Coming into Sundance, myself and the class were armed with the knowledge of Lory Smith and Peter Biskind and our preparatory list of films, I was excited to dive into a historic gathering of artists and consumers. It was an exhausting journey of wait lists, bus trips, and the scavenge for free food as to save money for tickets. Sundance has been something that I have been looking forward to since I was in middle school and I can say that it did not disappoint.
Now my initial knowledge of Sundance was limited to “I know there are independent films there” and what the Official Sundance Selection logo looked like. I did not know the history of the festival. The conflicts within the festival coordinators were unknown to me. I also was not familiar with the big names of Hollywood that were important to the growth of the festival like Robert Redford and Roger Ebert. As I type this out, I wonder how those people in 1978 would think of the festival if they were brought to this year’s festival during the time they were setting up the first US Film Festival. Would they expect that Sundance be what it has become today? What would they say about companies like HP, Chase, YouTube, Acura, or Morningstar putting on lounges for festival-goers?
To think, for years, this festival did not make a profit until 1982 but now has become one of the biggest economic contributors to Park City. Films that had relative no-names to becoming a showcase for big stars to do films that the mainstream audiences would never expect them to do. This festival gives more creative freedom to not only the filmmakers but also to casts and crew. The films of Sundance are made from budgets ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to at most a little over a million but you can see big name actors like Ryan Reynolds, Kristen Stewart, or Aaron Paul in these movies, where some have starred in movies that had budgets way bigger than any Sundance film budget. Sundance, however, does prove that a big budget does not mean a better movie. I have seen films at Sundance that I would have rather seen than most movies that have shown in the nearby theater or that had trailers showing during commercials.
This film festival allows filmmakers to create films that they want to create in hopes to be picked up and distributed. Although getting the Precious or Little Miss Sunshine treatment would be wonderful for these filmmakers, getting distributed would be an amazing opportunity for them. If a film is not distributed to major theaters like Beasts of the Southern Wild, being bought and distributed to limited release and through other film distribution avenues would be also beneficial. There were many films at Sundance that I am hoping comes out on DVD or Netflix because either they were very good or I could not watch them due to scheduling issues or ticketing issues.
Ticketing has be an experience during Sundance. As someone who has been to conventions like San Diego Comic Con, getting tickets and wait list numbers for films that I want was not unfamiliar territory. However, the cold did not help the waiting (neither did the Southern California summer heat). The new e-waitlist system was implemented this festival and I have to admit it was a valiant effort. Previous years would have had patrons line up hours before a film for a wait list number. This new electronic system allowed patrons to sign-up for a number two hours before a film. Now, this had some of its downfalls. The system could not handle the mass amount of activity by the simultaneous pressing of the “Join the Waitlist” button. Many (especially myself) were stuck in a state of loading, missing out on getting a number. At one point, the entire system crashed. Now, this system did not constantly fail but it did fail for the bigger films. My proposal: use the old-fashioned method for films with a lot of buzz (for example: the Skeleton Twins), as the old-fashioned way for big films seems more fair than hoping that the system does not fail on you.
These problems with the new system seem to be from the first weekend, where all the industry people come in (and the second half of the festival is mainly film lovers, as it was described by one of the volunteers at the intro of a film showing I was in). This was made apparent by a lot of the venues on Main Street were gone by the time the first half of the festival was over. This shows the festival’s importance as a market for independent filmmakers as people who only go for the second half would not notice some sponsored venues missing. This dedication to the industry was apparent in the priority pass holders for those in the industry like distributors, press, and the people close to the cast and crew (leaving people with tickets and wait list numbers out in the cold, so to speak). But that is what Sundance is for the first half: a market festival.
It is interesting to see what categories are at Sundance. Beyond the expected documentary and dramatic categories, NEXT and Spotlight are interesting categories. NEXT is dedicated to films that are sort of different in terms of storytelling and these films were some of my favorites like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Appropriate Behavior. Spotlight showcases films that have already premiered but the programmers felt like these should be shown at Sundance and I am glad this category exists because I would not have stumbled on to most of those films without this category.
Overall, Sundance was exactly how I expected it to be: hectic, fun, and exhausting. As I told my friends about my opportunity, they were telling me that I was lucky to be watching movies all day. I can say with full confidence that it is not as glamorous as it seems. This illusion of glamor can be traced back to the struggles the festival endured during its early years to be what it is today. A more modern struggle becomes “Can I see this film?” or “Do I have enough time to get from the Redstone to the Library?” or even “Will my wait list number be less than 30?” If someone thinks doing Sundance will be a walk in the park, then they are very much wrong. Although I say that, I would not have passed up this opportunity, even if I could.
One-hit wonders usually define decades of music like Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” Starship’s “We Built This City,” Hanson’s “mmmBop” or Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom.” With the growing use of YouTube, viral videos create more of these pop culture flashes in the pan with Psy and “Gangnam Style” or the group that made “What Does the Fox Say?” The film Frank is very reminiscent of this new source of musical fame through social media.
This film follows a man name Jon (played by Domnhall Gleeson), an amateur musician and aspiring songwriter that, through an odd series of events, joins an experimental band led by a strange man named Frank, who is never seen without wearing his big, fake head. As Jon and the band create a new album, Jon tries to catapult himself to fame by being the band’s social media coordinator. As the band progresses in making the album, Jon creates more buzz for the band. Soon, fame begins to hit Jon and then the band deals with being in the public eye for the first time.
The subject of this film is very relatable to the young generation that grew up with YouTube and Twitter, as they are heavily implemented in the film but are very appropriate. The social media integration was not overdone and fit the film perfectly, with Jon’s Twitter feed acting as a kind of narrator. If someone were to look up the cast for this film and see the name Michael Fassbender but do not see him in any stills of the film, then there is only one logical explanation: he is Frank. His performance as Frank was brilliant. He is such a strange character but does have that charisma that makes him a very likable person with a genius talent for music. Jon portrays that person that wants his fifteen minutes of fame and is very much like the current generation with his overexaggerated tweets and his secret recordings of the band’s behaviors. The film uses several locations from around the UK to Austin, Texas for SXSW (South by South West), and then to a suburban neighborhood. Given the cast and the various locations, as well as the very relatable subject matter of the film, this film can be considered in-between independent and mainstream (a 5 on a 1 to 10 scale). It is a very accessible film but the audience that will understand the references would be of the young adult persuasion. The myth of the fifteen minutes of fame is explored in the film (which is not obscure and exists in mainstream fiction too). It explores it in terms of the growth of social network and the nature of viral videos. This film shows the reality behind web fame and what those thousands of views and retweets really translate to in real life. This film also compares natural talent to fame achieved by a fluke. These ideas are fairly broad to those who are in the social media loop. People not totally into social media will be lost in the film. And that is who I recommend this film to: people who spend time on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter and know about going viral. Being familiar with experimental music and the jokes surrounding it would be a plus to enjoy what this film has to offer but it is not necessary. To people like myself, I feel like this film will resonate and be an enjoyable ride, as I believe we all have been Jon at one point in our life, growing up with social media.