Re-invention is emerging as the true theme of this year's Sundance Film Festival.
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24 Jan 2012 - 11:24 AM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 9:33 PM

In his opening day press conference, Robert Redford told a less-than-full house (blizzardy weather delayed many on their way in to Park City) that Sundance is the only “purely independent” film festival that also runs a filmmaking lab all year round. The first part of that description seemed designed to get the crowd wagging: For almost a decade now, debates over Sundance's indie credibility have nagged at the festival, which has become a hotspot for marketers—“leveragers” in Redford's words—and big studios hoping to manufacture a low-budget hit. In recent years the discussion about the year's program has been framed by a kind of accusation: Is Sundance really independent? This year, a new question is taking shape: What does independent even mean anymore?

In that same opening press conference Sundance Institute director John Cooper deflected a question about the overall theme of this year's program. “Independent film is the theme,” he said. In fact, there is a slogan for the 26th annual gathering in Park City: “Look Again.” It's written everywhere, most prominently in the animated bumpers that precede each film. Because I am professionally programmed to look for unifying themes, I would say that after a few days here in Park City, “Look Again” could have doubled as a mantra for many of this year's films. A large number of them involve artists stepping out of their comfort zones and into new capacities, with the hope that audiences will accept the shift. Filmmakers and distributors are also taking some risks, thinking more independently and encouraging audiences to do the same. It's like Park City is a snow-cloaked, Shakespearean forest, and all who enter hope to emerge transformed.

It's fitting that Stephen Soderbergh's new film, Haywire, was released over Sundance's opening weekend. The film, one of indie lodestar Soderbergh's romps into glossy genre territory, features mixed martial arts superstar Gina Carano in her first acting role. Many of the festival's high profile films have at least one foot in the discomfort zone, including Wish You Were Here, which was written by actors Felicity Price and Kieran Darcy-Smith and directed by Darcy-Smith. Actress Rashida Jones co-wrote the script for the acrid relationship comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, comedian Mike Birbiglia tried his hand at feature filmmaking with Sleepwalk with Me, and actor Mark Webber has written and directed The End of Love, a film about single fatherhood that stars his real-life toddler.

Some directors are switching it up as well: Nicholas Jarecki, of the Jarecki documentary dynasty (his brother Eugene's film The House I Live In, is playing in the doc competition), is receiving very warm reviews for his first feature film, Arbitrage (pictured), a finance thriller starring Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere. James Marsh, who won an Academy Award for the documentary Man on Wire in 2009 and directed Project Nim this past year, is also entering the feature arena with Shadow Dancer, an IRA-era thriller set in Belfast that stars Clive Owen and W.E. star Andrea Riseborough. Both are hoping the Sundance seal will calm skittish viewers about the switch.

Mumblecore lynchpin Joe Swanberg brought his Uncle Kent to last year's Sundance; this year he is not an official part of the program, but admits he timed the online release of his new film to coincide with the festival. Marriage Material is available for free for the week that Sundance is taking place. Swanberg's move is in keeping with a festival drawn more and more toward digital platforms and filmmaker-driven channels of distribution. Just as directors (like Detropia contenders Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) now routinely seek funding on sites like Kickstarter and Goodfilm.org, this year I have noticed it is the filmmakers themselves who stop to chat you up, not the publicists, and buyers talk as heatedly about VOD rights as they used to about splashy numbers for theatrical exhibition. After resisting this move for the better part of a decade, the movie industry finally feels ready to think about new ways to get eyes onto the films. Just before the festival began the Sundance Institute's “Artist Services” program announced a partnership with online distribution agency New Video. As of this year all Sundance films, past and present, are eligible to sign a deal for digital distribution—a godsend especially for older films that fell through the cracks.

This year Sundance has also teamed up with YouTube to provide a showcase for their short film selections, nine of which are available for viewing online. One of those, called Henley, directed by Craig MacNeill, is a snippet of a young boy's lonely world living at his father's roadside motel. Its biggest asset may be the beguiling face of young actor Hale Lytle, but Henley is well shot and sharply edited—a tonal exercise with a startlingly dark ending. Sundance shorts often function as calling cards, or teasers for feature versions of the same story. This year, by virtue of being instantly available around the world, the selections also provide a glimpse of the future of independent film.