Sundance Film Festival

Festival Programmer (John Cooper) On The Festival, The Economic Meltdown And Smelly Theaters

Good news! Weather.com is promising balmy temperatures in the 30s for the kickoff of the Sundance Film Festival this week. But if you listen to the words of John Cooper, director of festival programming, you can tell there’s still a chill in the air.

John Cooper, Sundance Film Festival

He says there are wonderful films at the festival this year (and he would, since he picks ‘em), but these are “artifacts from a better day.” In other words, these films were financed and well underway before the economic excrement met the fan. But now, he worries about what lies ahead. “Art always survives,” he says, “but at what struggle and what cost?”

For those hoping that a studio will buy their film, Cooper foresees potential disappointment. A number of independent labels are gone, he observes. “The people who are left I can hear pain in their voices for what their agenda has to be right now: picking up some things that have definite commercial prospects,” he says. The idea of taking a risk right now just seems too risky.

Cassian Elwes of the William Morris Agency is the one with the more upbeat view. (He’s representing films including Antoine Fuqua’s cop movie, Brooklyn’s Finest in partnership with CAA.) He figures the studios might be a little hungry because of the writers’ strike and the slowdown associated with the potential Screen Actors Guild walkout. His argument is that this year’s festival includes films featuring stars (Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon). Whatever the quality of those films, a studio can use the big names for marketing purposes. Elwes acknowledges that he’s “always a bit of a contrarian” and since “everyone says it’s going to be god awful,” he’s going the other way.
But at best, that’s just dealing with sales this year. Cooper is worried about the bigger picture. He says finding money for independent films is only going to get tougher and those much-vaunted “new distribution models” will need to kick in, though no one knows what that means at this point beyond something involving the internet.

“It’s kind of weird. I actually downloaded the Dark Knight on iTunes. I watched it on a plane,” he says with the kind of late-adopter astonishment that warms my Luddite heart. But did he not miss the sacred big-screen-in-the-dark movie experience? “Why do I want to sit in a room with strangers?” he asks. “Why is that interesting to me? A whole bunch of strangers in a possibly smelly theater?”

I’ll take a few whiffs at the Racquet Club and a few other choice Festival venues and get back to you on that one.