It was a good day to be the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday. The festival and everyone involved in it quietly scored a tremendous coup in the wee hours of Thursday morning when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees for the annual Academy Awards: Among them was "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a tiny independent film produced for less than $2 million and filmed in a small Louisiana bayou town.
When the Oscar winners are announced on Feb. 24, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" will be in contention for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. And the first people to see the film? Festivalgoers who sought it out as an entry in the U.S. Dramatic Competition program of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Thanks to a journey that started at Sundance, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (which showed its award-worthy colors early, winning a Grand Jury Prize from the festival) could wind up being one of the most widely seen independent films of 2012.
If he's said it once, Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford has said it 100 times, most recently at the 2012 festival's opening-day press conference: The point of the festival is to help more people discover and enjoy the films that are shown there. "Our mission has remained the same since the very beginning," Redford said. "That is creating a platform for independent artists to show their work."
So will there be another Best Picture nominee waiting in the wings when the Sundance Film Festival rolls out its 2013 lineup this weekend? The astonishing critical success of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is just one reason that journalists and movie industry professionals will be swarming the streets of Park City, but it's a potent reminder of everything else the festival has done to advance the cause of independent cinema over the past three decades.
And "Beasts" certainly demonstrates one quality that festival programmers seek out: It's different. One of a kind. Unusual. "I think we say this every year," said veteran Sundance programmer Kim Yutani. "We're looking for fresh films, fresh filmmaking voices, people who are doing something different."
Short films pave the way
Not radically different, necessarily. Yutani said, for example, that people frequently submit films to Sundance that have coming-of-age story arcs. It's certainly a reliable formula in Hollywood, and one of the festival's biggest-ever Sundance-to-mainstream crossovers was the daffy coming-of-age comedy "Napoleon Dynamite."
In 2013, Yutani said, for whatever reason there are a substantial number of what you might call "coming-of-middle age" films at the festival.
One film in the Next program, "This is Martin Bonner," is about a 50-something divorcee who moves to Reno to work for a church-supported prison charity. Yutani also pointed out "Afternoon Delight," about a bored housewife who takes a maternal interest in an exotic dancer, attempting to help the younger woman improve her employment prospects.
"Afternoon Delight" is notable for a different reason: It's the first feature-length film for writer and director Jill Soloway, who you might say is moving up from the jay-vee to the varsity. "Last year we showed her short film [the comedy 'Una Hora Por Favora']," Yutani said. "Just a year later she's made this incredible feature."
"Afternoon Delight" is one of several films just in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, Yutani said, made by filmmakers whose first work shown at the festival was in the short film category. Also on the list: David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," Lake Bell's "In a World," John Krokidas's "Kill Your Darlings," Cherien Dabis's "May in the Summer" and Jordan Vogt-Roberts's "Toy's House."
There's also a history of filmmakers who get short films into the festival, then return with feature-length films that either build on or rework their earlier efforts. Last year, Mads Matthiesen was at the festival with "Teddy Bear," which built on his 2008 Sundance short film "Dennis." Another Sundance short from 2008, "The Rambler," has now become a feature-length film at this year's festival with the same title.
(Your Daily Herald team saw and reviewed "The Rambler" with "Hell Ride" in 2008. Here's an excerpt: "['Hell Ride'] was preceded by a short film called 'The Rambler' that is mostly about how a hitchhiker gets tied to a bed in a backwoods cabin by a shut-in wild girl, who takes a shower and then throws up on him for, like, two minutes ... in real time.")
A festival fraternity?
Of course, getting to Sundance the first time doesn't mean that your next film will be in like Flynn (so to speak). Yutani said that there's no favoritism in the selection process. "I think a lot of our shorts filmmakers are really inspired when they come to the festival," she said. "They meet people and create alliances. That helps them make better feature films."
Jerusha Hess, co-writer and director of "Austenland," a film in the 2013 U.S. Dramatic Competition, said she's heard the same thing from a reliable source: her husband, former Sundance juror Jared Hess. The Hesses, who both attended Brigham Young University, previously co-wrote "Napoleon Dynamite" (directed by Jared Hess), but Jerusha Hess said that she doesn't think being in the Sundance family already made it any easier for her to get "Austenland" (based on the novel by Utah author Shannon Hale) to Park City.
"My insecure side, says, 'Oh, yeah, I just got in because I've been here before,' " Hess said. "Jared told me that's not how it is. He said people submit stuff over and over and don't get back in just because they've done it before."
The festival's biggest programs are almost evenly divided between narrative features and documentaries, a reflection of Redford's well-known love of documentary films.
Yutani said there are a lot of human interest documentaries in this year's festival, films that tell personal stories like "20 Feet from Stardom" (about backup singers) and "American Promise" (a 12-years-in-the-making film about two boys' following diverging educational paths).
As at past Sundance Film Festivals, there's lots to see and do in Park City during the festival that's not directly related to Sundance, or even to film. Game-maker Nintendo will have a "Nintendo Lounge" in operation in Park City throughout the festival to showcase its new Wii U system.
And former professional hockey star Luc Robitaille will host his 6th annual Luc Robitaille Celebrity Shootout charity event at Park City Ice Arena on Jan. 20.
Sometimes the attention seekers aren't entirely off on their own beam: The brand-new Louisiana International Film Festival is previewing its launch later this year with a big Sundance soiree.
Yutani said that submissions to Sundance are strong as ever, despite the growing number of competing festivals. The competition, she said, is actually good for everyone.
"I think that's a really great and positive thing for filmmakers," Yutani said. Thousands of feature and short films are submitted to the festival each year, but only a small fraction of them get in. It can only help filmmakers, she said, that "there are so many other festivals that can do great things for their films."