SUNDANCE: The Sundance Film Festival has just hung out its shingle for the 30th year, though at least one big spender began crossing items off of her shopping list even before the first theatre darkened. The big news last week was that Oprah Winfrey herself would be touching down in Park City this year, ostensibly to shop for films to broadcast on OWN, her newly launched television network.
No doubt this was heartening news to filmmakers, many of whom get lost in Sundance's ever-expanding shuffle to launch next year's Oscar hopefuls. Last year, for instance, Sundance premiered awards favourites Blue Valentine, Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right, Please Give, and Australia's Animal Kingdom, as well as documentary stand-outs Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Catfish, Restrepo and Exit Through the Gift Shop (the latter two made this year's Oscar shortlist).
The television market is increasingly of interest to documentary filmmakers, and a network like OWN, which declared its appetite for non-fiction films early on, could make them the latest benefactors of the much-cited “Oprah Effect.” Winfrey has created a monthly “documentary club,” which will feature a new documentary on OWN each month and will also sponsor nationwide theatrical events. It's a model based loosely on the book club she conducted on her talk show, which single-handedly revived the publishing industry in the early aughts. In fact Winfrey bought her club's first documentary—called A Family Affair—at last year's Sundance festival.
All of this bodes extremely well for those filmmakers worried that Robert Redford's annual extravaganza has gone too corporate to garner them anything more than bragging rights. In fact Sundance, among all of the major festivals, has always been very much a seller's market, something Winfrey herself must have noted. Screeners circulate amid the high rollers even before the festival begins (an executive at Magnolia, an independent distributor, confessed that he'd pulled strings to get an early look at their 2009 indie hit Humpday, to get the jump on his competitors) and this year the pre-emptive buys started making headlines last week.
First among them was Winfrey's purchase of Becoming Chaz (pictured), the chronicle the sexual reassignment surgery that transformed Chastity Bono from a woman into the man she felt she was born to be. Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Becoming Chaz is set to make a television debut—something that even documentary filmmakers used to think of as second best but now constitutes a serious win.
A theatrical release, especially for documentaries, just doesn't mean what it used to—the combination of a flooded field and the rise of concurrent theatrical and on-demand premieres has changed the market in the same way that online journalism has forced a reckoning in the print publishing world, and those who cleave to the old protocols will soon be left behind. And if anything can help redefine “prestige” in the minds of both the artists and the audience, however, its Oprah and all of her many effects.