If you lean in closely you can see where one year's award season ends and the next one begins. A publicist's job is never done, as I was reminded last week as the awards dinner held by the New York Film Critics Circle. Before the ceremony began business cards cut the air and party invitations were dangled, all in anticipation of this year's Sundance Film Festival. The festival, held in Park City, Utah from January 19-29, is full of hopeful debuts like last year's Margin Call, whose director, JC Chandor, accepted the award for best first film at the NYFCC event. Jessica Chastain was also honored for her performance in Take Shelter, another Sundance breakout. I felt a little bad for Chastain, though: It's hard to milk the ingénue thing when the wife of another of the evening's winners, Brad Pitt, is on the premises.
It's also hard not to feel like a hanger on with Pitt and Angelina Jolie in the room, even if you belong there too. It was my first time attending the dinner, a lower key kick-off to a season of dresses and cocktails and acceptance speeches of wildly varying quality. The dinner was filled with publicists and producers, critics and talent, many with their minds already on what was happening next, which is to say Sundance. Those ten days in Park City begin a year of awards buzz; they can also be the beginning of a career.
I was reminded of this while speaking to a woman who joined me in trying not to stare at Jolie. It turned out the woman is a filmmaker, though she expressed hesitation in using the word. It has been a while since she completed a film—life had intervened, as it often does. I asked her if she had been to Sundance and her face darkened. Her last film had been accepted almost a decade ago, she said, but it turned out she was scheduled to give birth on the night of the premiere; she was unable to oversee the delivery of her other baby. What she described next was a series of botches that were out of her control—publicity fails, technical glitches, unmotivated salespeople.
It sounds like the plot of a plucky Sundance movie, I thought—a Sophie's Choice for the modern mom—but something in her expression stopped me from making the joke. The film didn't get picked up for distribution, and she told me that with Sundance, leaving without a distributor is worse than not getting in at all.
I thought of a friend of mine, another independent filmmaker, whose first film had just been rejected. He was crushed, but we tried to convince each other this wasn't the end. Hell, Drugstore Cowboy was rejected from Sundance. And this year, every one of the twenty-six premieres showing out of competition is also seek a buyer—including Lay the Favorite (pictured), a new a new film by Stephen Frears starring Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Red Hook Summer, a Brooklyn tale being hailed as a return to form for Spike Lee. Old school stars like Sean Penn—who plays an ex-goth rocker looking for his father in This Must Be The Place—and Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon—costars in Nicholas Jarecki's feature directing debut Arbitrage—are lending their cachet to smaller films. The A-list's reverse exodus into indie territory seems to confirm the fact that finding the right project and actually getting it made is tougher than ever.
And yet the far side of that mountain looks a little brighter this year. 2011, as was widely noted, was a record year in sales at Sundance. High profile deals were made for comedies like Our Idiot Brother and Win Win and awards fodder like Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene, along with a long list of documentaries. Though the box office numbers were ultimately disappointing for most of those films, in the last year the video on demand and television markets have only grown—theater box office may no longer be the primary measure of success. Both the filmmakers and the distributors are embracing new distribution models, which means more people leave happy—the grim predicament the filmmaker at the NYFCC dinner described is no longer inevitable.
On my ride into Park City I sat beside a friend of the filmmakers behind a documentary about internet sensation Chris Crocker (the “leave Britney alone” guy) and internet sensations in general called Me @ The Zoo. He was practically bouncing with happiness for his pals, co-directors Valerie Veatch and Chris Moukarbel. Playing in the documentary competition over the coming weekend, it's one of the first of the 117 feature-length films screening at this year's festival to snag a buyer: HBO bought the television broadcast rights in a preemptive deal.
He wasn't supposed to tell me that, he said—the news wasn't public yet—but he just couldn't contain himself. Me @ The Zoo was already on my list of things to see, and now news of its deal is out. I'd like to think having some sense at the filmmakers' excitement and relief wouldn't influence me one way or the other, but the truth is one of the most heartening things about Sundance is the feeling of participating in both a creative and a democratic process. Films that have been labored over for months and years are not truly finished until they are watched, and once they are anything can happen. This year, the tendency toward hype feels tamed—maybe even humbled—by the mystery of that process. To the screening rooms!