Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sundance neither the be-all or end-all

Sundance is going on right now, and truth to tell, I wouldn't mind being there. I'm sure there are some awesome movies being premiered. And a handful of filmmakers will go home with the brass ring — their picture bought for distribution and a development deal for another — well in hand. But there's a lesson about putting all your eggs into one basket to be learned here, too. An L.A. Times article gives hopeful auteurs a reality smack today, pointing out that precious few Grand Jury Prize winners have actually gone on to have, you know, a filmmaking career:

For all its acclaim, the Grand Jury Prize was not intended to reward filmmakers whose movies are likely to make millions of dollars, said Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's director. Rather, the awards are designed to call attention to works with bold, creative ambition — and the directors behind such indie movies are likely to find a rough road in an industry driven by the bottom line.

"The jurors are looking for films that are taking risks," Gilmore said. "It's not surprising that these films don't always do so well in the marketplace."

Of course, you could say the same for the Cannes Palme d'Or, one recent winner of which — Gus Van Sant's Elephant — only took in $1.2 million theatrically in the US. It's the age-old battle between art and commerce being duked out again. The problem is that too many artists shun too fanatically the commercial realities of the vocation they have chosen to pursue. Movies are neither just an art form nor just a business; they are both. The people who want to succeed don't "sell out," they just learn how to draw a balance between the two. They are also the people who are sufficiently self-confident to refuse to take no for an answer.

Every buyer balked at a theatrical release for Livingston's "Paris Is Burning," a documentary about drag queens. "After it won the Grand Jury Prize, nobody was interested still. It meant nothing," Livingston said. "I talked to many distribution types and was told it would never make any money." Livingston distributed the film herself, and when it generated standing-room-only screenings in New York, Miramax decided to buy the film. "Paris Is Burning" turned into a documentary hit, grossing more than $3.7 million.

Now that's how you rise above the pack. Too many indie filmmakers seem to have this idea that simply by screening at a festival, the brilliance of their filmmaking genius will be undeniable to all, and all they have to do from that point on is hold court in the hotel bar while distributors line up to genuflect, contracts in hand. Weeeeell, reality is more like this: you have to sell yourself. This involves doing tasteless things many serious artistes can't abide. Schmoozing. Networking. Pimping. It means taking exactly the same kind of risks to sell your film as it took to make it in the first place. It means being bold and maybe earning the ire and jealousy of other filmmakers whose criticisms of you, if they were at all honest, will in fact be rooted in envy that they didn't think of what you did to succeed first.

Of course, sometimes you may put out that effort and your film still won't make it. But at least you'll know you gave it the best try you could, rather than always wondering what might have happened had you only tried. Whether it's Sundance or any other festival out there, the festival itself will not do your heavy lifting for you. Only you can do that.

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