Back to Main Page Back to Articles

Pioneer Net

Published: Sunday, January 28, 2001

Sundance no sellers' market this year



Here's a little secret about the Sundance Film Festival: Most of the movies aren't that great.

This isn't a revelation to anyone who's attended this -- or most other -- festivals, and it really shouldn't come as a surprise: Given that Sundance's focus is fledgling American independent filmmakers, you can't expect the bulk of the entries to be as mature as the works of mid-career veterans.

Still, the 2001 festival had been touted as a potentially hot sellers' market because many of the films arrived without distribution deals, and the big and little distributors are keen on stockpiling movies in case writers' and actors' strikes shut down production this summer.

Sundance founder Robert Redford, absent because he's filming the thriller ``Spy Game'' in Morocco, makes a point of decrying the market aspect of the festival. If he were here, he might take some perverse enjoyment in the way Sundance 2001 is shaking out.

The widely anticipated bidding wars, like such as the ones that erupted over films such as like ``Shine'' and ``The Spitfire Grill,'' haven't happened, at least through the first weekend, most likely because the films on display thus far this year aren't cooperating with distributors' commercial agendas.

``The current marketplace is so tough in regards to how many films there are in the marketplace, and how many distributors are willing to spend huge amounts of print and advertising money, and most of the movies that I've seen to date are very small, very fragile and would have a tough time,'' said Paramount Classics co-president Ruth Vitale, whose company has yet to bid on anything.

The first screenings of several of the unattached, pre-hyped features have attracted a who's who of top dogs from the specialty-film distributors, including heavyweight Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. Weinstein has been particularly visible so far at screenings and parties, apparently to make up for his absence last year (he was in the hospital) and to signal that Miramax doesn't plan on repeating its dreary 2000 on the art-film side. Miramax even sent out a pre-festival e-mail to the press announcing ``We will be there in a big way with acquisitions.''

Not yet. A few films have stirred distributor interest, Timothy Bui's Vietnamese refugees melodrama ``Green Dragon'' and Joel Hopkins' cross-cultural romantic comedy ``Jump Tomorrow'' reportedly among them. But just as many have left executives resembling suitors with stocked limousines and no dates.

Some entries in this particularly heavy lineup have boasted admirable ambition but not quite the ability to carry it off. The most provocative dramatic-competition feature at this point is Henry Bean's ``The Believer,'' about a young New York Nazi sympathizer (Ryan Gosling) who hides his Jewish past. The problem with this film is that the character's conflicts and abrupt shifts never become coherent.

First-time filmmaker Richard Kelly aspires to merge Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson and M. Night Shyamalan in ``Donnie Darko,'' a time-warping tale about a suburban teen (Jake Gyllenhaal of ``October Sky'') who sees mysterious visions. But the movie (executive produced by Drew Barrymore, who has a small part), fails to connect the emotional or logical dots.

Debuting director Todd Field has won admirers here for restrained lyricism displayed in ``In the Bedroom,'' a tale of love, grief and vengeance starring Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. But my goodness, is this one slow: it's 134 minutes of thin story and lingering anguish.

More firepower is delivered by Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles in what had been touted as a female variation of ``In the Company of Men.'' But Patrick Stettner's ``The Business of Strangers'' plays out more like a female ``The Big Kahuna,'' a hotel-bound character study with strong performances and revelations that aren't completely revelatory.

In the festival's Premieres section, which features more established filmmakers and often bigger stars, Tom DiCillo's new comedy, ``Double Whammy,'' packed the 1,200-seat Eccles auditorium with industry types and festivalgoers. But the movie, starring Denis Leary as a cop and Elizabeth Hurley as his chiropractor love interest, turned out to be the most rambling, scattershot work yet from the director of ``Living in Oblivion.''

Critics have also scoffed at ``The Caveman's Valentine,'' Kasi Lemmons' florid follow-up to ``Eve's Bayou'' starring Samuel L. Jackson as a homeless man who investigates a murder. Daniel Minahan's ``Series 7'' has earned more fans for its prescient satire of reality TV.

The festival opened, typically, with a would-be crowd-pleaser: ``My First Mister,'' the feature directing debut of actress Christine Lahti, a well-intentioned tale that quickly turned icky.

``Every year everybody says, `Oh, it's a horrible year,' '' Bownes said. ``So far this year it's kind of living up to it, but we'll see. We've got some stuff left to go.''