It’s not the biggest film festival in the world. Berlin, which screens as many as 600 movies in 11 days, may hold that record.
It’s not the oldest either. Cannes has been screening world cinema since just after the close of World War II.
And it’s arguably not even the most prestigious. Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, New York and even Telluride all have their own legions of admirers.
But when it comes to positioning American movies before the world, no other film festival can beat Sundance - which begins its 10-day run on Thursday in Park City, Utah.
Even when it was still called the Utah/U.S. Film Festival (which was inaugurated in 1978), Sundance was set up to be more than just a fun time for movie-lovers.
It was designed to be a movie celebration of American film, largely American independent film.
That emphasis was, if anything, made even more profound in 1985 when Robert Redford’s non-profit Sundance Institute took over. After being shifted from Salt Lake to Park City in 1981, the festival already had expanded to its current 10-day run.
And popularity has followed. In the past dozen years, the number of Sundance festival-goers have more than doubled - to last year’s 13,000.
And what have they managed to see in those years? Films that have earned independent filmmakers new-found respect and box-office clout.
Feature films such as the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple,” Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies and videotape,” Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi,” Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise,” David O. Russell’s “Spanking the Monkey,” Edward Burns’ “The Brothers McMullen” and Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
Documentaries such as Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream,” “Hoop Dreams,” Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” and “Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern.”
Last year, Sundance rewarded one of Spokane’s own by bestowing its Filmmaker’s Trophy to Neil LaBute, director of the critically acclaimed “In the Company of Men.”
During this year’s run, fest-goers will get the chance to heap acclaim on another Spokane-inspired artist - poet/novelist-turned-filmmaker Sherman Alexie.
Alexie, who now lives in Seattle, will be part of the delegation attached to the film “Smoke Signals” (originally titled “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”).
Now on a nationwide book tour, Alexie wasn’t available for comment. But, as he told Spokesman-Review reporter Julie Titone last month, he was looking forward to attending Sundance because it “is where independent films get their name.’
(Note: Alexie also told Titone that he changed the movie’s title because, “Smoke signals are also calls for help, and that relates to the movie. We wanted something that was kind of funny, kind of ironic and related to the film.”)
Based on Alexie’s novel “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” “Smoke Signals” will screen seven times during the festival run. Directed by Chris Eyre from Alexie’s adaptation of his own novel and produced by Seattle’s ShadowCatcher Entertainment, the film is one of 16 independent works selected for the feature-length Dramatic Competition category.
The competition’s intent: to “bring interest to independent filmmakers as a whole.”
As such, “Smoke Signals,” which stars Adam Beach and Gary Farmer, is competing against such films and stars as “Buffalo 66” (Anjelica Huston), “Jerry and Tom” (Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy), “Under Heaven” (Joely Richardson) and “Wrestling With Alligators” (Claire Bloom).
Never heard of these films? All you have to do is wait. LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” may never have gotten the attention it ultimately received, including being named to the New York Times’ best films of 1997 list, had it not earned good notices at Sundance.
The same holds true for other recent Sundance entries, including “The Spitfire Grill,” “love jones,” “Sunday,” “Big Night” and “The Brothers McMullen.”
“I think one of the best things about Sundance is that it has exposed the world to really true creative artistic talent that would get lost in the regular studio system,” says Andy Strickman, formerly of The Inlander and now arts editor for San Francisco Sidewalk, Microsoft’s Bay Area cyber city guide. “It’s also turned the studios on to giving chances to young filmmakers that nobody’s ever heard of.”
If the past is any gauge, someone is bound to emerge from this year’s group, perhaps to become the next Edward Burns, Steven Soderbergh - or, for that matter, Kevin Smith (“Clerks”). There’s certainly no shortage of candidates. The 103 films and 68 shorts that make up the ‘98 schedule were juried from 675 feature and 194 documentary entries.
Many of those films will play later this year in other festivals more readily accessible to Inland Northwest residents. For instance, Seattle in June, Vancouver in October.
But Sundance, held in the relatively intimate confines of Park City, boasts its own unique draw. Besides specializing in American and world premieres, Sundance offers maybe the best opportunity for regular fest-goers to sit, ride or stand in line with actual stars themselves.
Strickman, who will be attending his fourth festival this year, recalls seeing various stars on the free shuttles that carry fest-goers between the 12 participating theaters (eight in Park City, one in Ogden, one in Salt Lake and one at the Sundance Institute in Provo Canyon).
“It’s really fun to see them,” he says. “I mean, you get on one of the shuttles and you’re sitting next to Sheryl Lee or Samuel L. Jackson. … One of my highlights was getting my picture taken with Elle McPherson.”
The same should be true this year. “We always anticipate with the premiere films to have most of the major talent come to town,” says R.J. Millard, the festival’s associate media director.
For ‘98, Millard says, that should include the likes of Matthew Modine, Daryl Hannah, Claire Danes, Stanley Tucci, Rene Zellweger, Sissy Spacek, Parker Posey, Kevin Bacon and Mary Stuart Masterson. Frances McDormand, winner of the 1997 Oscar for Best Actress, will be the subject of a special career tribute on Jan. 18.
Still, as with most film festivals, the main draw is the movies themselves. And other draws this year include documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ “Frank Lloyd Wright”; two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple’s profile of Woody Allen, “Wild Man Blues”; Evan Dunsky’s comedy “Life During Wartime”; Nick Broomfield’s study of the late Kurt Cobain, “Kurt and Courtney”; and an entire slate devoted to Native American cinema - all apart from “Smoke Signals.”
That’s a diverse program. And it boasts a noble purpose.
Paying tribute to American independent film.
It’s the celebration that they call Sundance.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos Map of area.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FESTIVAL INFORMATION For information about the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, which runs from Thursday through Jan. 25, call the office of the Utah Film Commission (801) 538-7840. While tickets to this year’s festival are sparse, they aren’t impossible to acquire. The box office number is (435) 645-7280.