Sundance 2009: Different Perspectives On This Year's Festival

It’s hard enough to leave sunny Los Angeles for freezing Park City but this year, I’m just back from the tropical warmth of Hawaii. I don’t expect much sympathy but still, can you concede that it’s a shock to the system? Shorts and tee shirts are out of the suitcase; long johns and unflattering outerwear are in.

My God, there’s no way Anna Wintour shows up at the screening of R.J. Cutler’s documentary, THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, is there?

September Issue, directed by R.J. Cutler

It may be cold in Park City but the economy continues to melt down. That should make for some interesting tales from the Festival. John Cooper, the festival programmer, says the movies are wonderful, emotional, eclectic–but sales may be slow with fewer buyers, less money and a diminished appetite for risk. “It’s kind of like the rug is pulled out,” he says. “But you know what? The movies are better than they’ve ever been. . . If the independent film world is dying, nobody’s told the filmmakers.”

Playing the optimist is William Morris agent Cassian Elwes. He’s already done some business and he’s confident he’ll do more. He and his associates at Creative Artists Agency have Antoine Fuqua’s gritty cop movie, Brooklyn’s Finest, with Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke. And they’ve already sold RUDO Y CURSI, a comedy that reunites Gael Garcia Bernal with his Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN co-star, Diego Luna. (Sony Pictures Classics bought that one.)

Cinetic’s John Sloss is not quite so sanguine. He’s bringing far fewer than the 19 movies that he tried to sell last year, when business was slow. And he isn’t making any predictions about how this year will go.

My dance card isn’t filled out yet but my plans include the opening night premiere of MARY AND MAX, a claymation film about a pen-pal relationship between a lonely 8-year-old girl in Australia and a 44-year-old Jewish man in New York who has Asperberger’s syndrome. Cooper says it’s “a great story – dark and twisted and odd.”

I also feel mysteriously drawn to Gael Garca Bernal – I mean, to RUDO Y CURSI, which sounds like an amusing tale of two soccer-playing brothers. And since I’m in the mood for comedy, like much of America, we’ll go for HUMPDAY. Described as a “buddy movie gone wild,” this film from Lynn Shelton sounds like it might be a woman’s take on Judd Apatow territory.


Some of the films sound like they require steely nerves: PUSH, from cheery Lee Daniels, about an abused teen in Harlem; THE GREATEST, with Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan as bereaved parents; THE COVE, a documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan. I’ll try to catch Cooper weeping. He says he cries at everything – sometimes even when he introduces the films.

Through it all I’ll keep an eye on those hopeful filmmakers, anxious sellers and secretive buyers. I’ll check out the swag. Cooper expects that aspect of the festival to be dialed back this year because of the economy. “To me, that’s the good news,” he says. “We’ve been trying to control that for many years.” This time, the festival has decided to sleep with the enemy. The “granddaddy:” of all the gifting venues was the Village at the Lift, a tented operation where chic boutique Fred Segal and other vendors dispensed the goodies. (And the outrage of it all was that the Festival didn’t get a piece of the action.) “We took that over this year and are working with the [organizer], who used to be an ambusher of us,” says Cooper. This year, he says, “they play by our rules.”

As a journalist, I have my own rules. I’m not allowed to cart off the high-end merchandise. But last year, maybe I picked up some high-end, environmentally correct lotion in the Lexus eco-luxury suite, and had a little hand massage. Is the environment unable to support eco-luxury this year? If the answer is aye, there goes the rub.