Sundance Film Festival

Pushy Publicists and Fisticuffs

The last noteworthy fight out of Sundance can be read about in any book or magazine timeline that charts the fest’s history. Harvey Weinstein came to blows with producer Jonathan Taplin over “Shine.” That fight was about an acquisition. Harvey was pissed because someone else acquired the film.

Yesterday a new fight made the blogs — Publicist Jeff Dowd was pissed that critic John Anderson didn’t get his film.

Anderson felt that people will not respond to “Dirt!”, a film Dowd was helping to push. Dowd wouldn’t accept that after hearing the audience reaction. He wouldn’t leave Anderson alone, pursuing him, trying to change his mind and being relentless about it. Anderson got frustrated and lashed out.

The “Shine” fight typified that year’s Sundance — sales were more, prices were bigger.

This new fight is a result of this year’s event — sales are slow, pressure is mounting. The logjam that was supposed to break an avalanche of deals after the Jim Carrey starrer “I Love You Phillip Morris” never broke.

The job of publicists at fests like Sundance is unique. They’re to drum a beat for distributor/buyer interest, not necessarily for general audiences. For a film in general release there are important reviews to get, but at Sundance the trade reviews take on a particular significance because of their sales bent. And there’s really only two papers doing it.

To be a Variety or HR journalist at Sundance is to be hounded by sales agents, publicists, agents and even fest programmers and filmmakers. And while Dowd’s pursuit of Anderson is the extreme, it is the norm (unfortunately). I know of no reviewer or journo whose mind has been changed because of a publicist in hot pursuit, but it doesn’t stop the pursuit.

News reporters are in the crosshairs, too. Several days ago, a flack pleaded with us to interview a director about their film’s marketability, after a reviewer dismissed its chances in their piece.

And the spin keeps coming, yet now the focus is the fight itself. Today three emails came in, all explaining the fight from Dowd’s perspective, and using it to push “Dirt.” Regarding Anderson — “ill-informed assumptions are not what is best for the planet and not in the spirit of dialogue that goes on at Sundance.” (To wrap global issues into Anderson’s opinion is a bit below-the-belt; like a New World Order guilt trip).

Sundance audience reaction is a dubious measurement of future success. “Slam” had a raucous audience response. So did “Happy, Texas.” And so did “The Blair Witch Project.” The smaller theaters are easily seeded with the film’s supporters — relatives and crew who already like it. Buyers know this. Sometimes it’s mind-blowingly obvious (“Happy, Texas” case-in-point). Reviewers know it, too.

Yet what indicator can buyers really use to gauge marketability? A lone reviewer? A hired flack? A biased audience? Themselves? Heaven forbid.