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POLLYWOOD | The Surreel Life: Park City

Washingtonians break out, Latino filmmakers continue to gain accolades and war stories provide a sobering reminder

BY MICHAEL CLEMENTS

My last morning in Park City came entirely too early, having "ended" only hours earlier in the iconoclastic Hollywood way - soaking in a hot tub. The previous evening began innocently enough at Chefdance, a celebrity smorgasbord, where filmmakers, actors and assorted foodies willingly subject themselves to the nightly whims of a different celebrity chef. That night it was Tory McPhail of Commander's Palace in New Orleans serving up succulent Cajun gourmet fare. Afterwards, I headed upstairs to music venue Zone Bar, which had hosted such acts as Matisyahu, Mos Def, Nelly, Nas and Pharell Williams that week. The "industry" heavy crowd bounced until 2 a.m. sharp (this is Utah, not New York) to the sounds of international DJ Paul Oakenfold and an impromptu jam by Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx and Babyface.

 

Party by night, ski in the morning 196 feature films representing 37 countries were selected from 7,732 submissions for Sundance 2007.
Party by night, ski in the morning, watch films all day. 196 feature films representing 37 countries were selected from 7,732 submissions for Sundance 2007.

 

What I remember most about that morning (even more than the impending thought of a trip back to D.C. in economy seats with a first class hangover) were my dreams. All the films I had seen, a hefty 15 in four days, were still coursing through my grey matter. Flipping through its Fellini rolodex, my subconscious conjured up harrowing images of prisoner abuse from Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib; black and white archival footage from Ted Leonsis' documentary Nanking; and the waif-like visage of the boy from coming-of-age break-out comedy Son of Rambow. (After the success of Little Miss Sunshine, the expression "break-out comedy" gets more play at Sundance than a low-level L.A. PR girl looking to network.) Finally, there were the lingering romantic emotions from the New York Chinatown love story, Year of the Fish and nightmarish strobe flashes and Gothic imagery from We Are The Strange, an animated film I could only tolerate for 25 minutes.

THE THEME FOR SUNDANCE 2007 WAS "FOCUS ON FILM" A NOT-SO-VEILED RESPONSE TO THE FESTIVAL'S RAMPANT COMMERCIALIZATION OF RECENT YEARS.

Aside from visceral dreamscapes, the other unintended by-product of absorbing 15 films in four days is that "real life" begins to blend with "reel life." Case in point: in the wee hours of my last night, as I walked back from Zone Bar in the clear crisp Utah night, the lines of reality blurred. The still-lighted ski slopes snaked up the mountainsides like angelic pathways to heaven. For a backdrop, a thinly veiled half moon saturated the evening sky with steely cobalt-blue. Was it real? That last premiere ... or the vodka red bulls? Either way, the bottom line is that one cannot go to Sundance without being affected by film.

The theme for Sundance 2007 was "Focus on Film," a not-so-veiled response to the festival's rampant commercialization in recent years, exacerbated by sightings last year of Paris Hilton shopping on Main Street for lingerie with hairless accessory dog and media throng in tow. The spectacle was enough to startle Prince Redford and his merry band of cinephiles into reminding us that the spirit of independent film lives in the work, not the post-premiere VIP reception. "Bob" got some additional help from the IRS this year after it warned that swag passed out at notoriously extravagant celebrity gifting suites should be reported as taxable income (Would you like a 1099 with that $80,000 Hello Kitty diamond watch Dakota Fanning?). But many think the "Focus of Film" theme was aimed at a much more injurious force - the market.

Last year's afore-mentioned, ahem, "break-out comedy" Little Miss Sunshine netted a Sundance record $10.5 million payout from Fox Searchlight. This year, obscure films such as Son of Rambow and feminist horror film Teeth, about a girl who's lovemaking comes with shall we say, a bite, sold for $8 million to Paramount Vantage and $1 million to The Weinstein Company & Lionsgate, respectively. By the end of Sundance, 18 of the festival's 122 feature length submissions were picked up in the $2.5 to $6 million range.

Washingtonians fared particularly well. The projector barely stopped after La Misma Luna had its premiere screening when local resident/producer Norman Dreyfuss found himself in a bidding war with five potential distributors. Deal broker, John Sloss of Cinetic Media hid each suitor in a different room of his five-bedroom Park City condo and meet each individually, "upping the ante through each bedroom. It lasted nine hours," recalled the movie's Sundance publicist, Jim Dobson. The film sold in a joint partnership of Weinstein Co. and Fox Searchlight for $5 million, a record for a Spanish-language independent film.

Locals Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine left Sundance with a nice momento: The documentary director's award for War/Dance, about Uganda's 20-year civil war as seen through the eyes of three children. The husband-and-wife team met making films for National Geographic. AOL vice chairman and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis sold the international rights - excluding China - to his documentary film Nanking to Fortissimo Films. Leonsis spent $2 million to produce the film, which was inspired by Iris Chang's best-selling 1997 book The Rape of Nanking. He has not disclosed its sale price and is still weighing options for domestic distribution.

As the pre-eminent showcase for independent film, Sundance walks a fine line between art and business. Filmmakers are not philanthropists by any stretch, so it goes without saying that financial success is key to Sundance's long-term survival. But one wonders if, or when, market forces will transform this sleepy ski-town into another swag stop on the festival circuit. The good news is that Sundance, with its alwayschallenging slates and poignant panels, is as relevant today as when it began. Although this year's crop might not have been the strongest to date, the festival still resonated with stories that matter, making it a last bastion of independent thought and creation in our increasingly overformulized and commoditized Hollywood world. And, hey, you can ski too ... if you haven't stayed up all night.

 



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