What lessons can we take away from Sundance?

WINTER’S BONE, Grand Jury Prize Winner at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival

Now that the Sundance Film Festival is over, it’s time for a little perspective. And critics and industry watchers are only too happy to provide it.

Sure, since the awards were handed out on Saturday night and the Festival wrapped on Sunday, there have been the requisite stories about which movies to watch out for and the reports on last-minute acquisitions. (Ten movies were acquired at the festival; in the past few days, Weinstein Co. snagged Derek Cianfrance’s BLUE VALENTINE, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling; IFC Films scored the rights to Michael Winterbottom’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME; and Roadside scooped up Debra Granik’s WINTER’S BONE, which won the festival’s grand jury prize.)

But what lessons can we take away from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival?

Blogger Marshall Fine contends that the Festival’s push for arty over commercial, while noble, is ultimately not really that much of a change at all.

“Ultimately, audiences want what they want — and the mass audience wants mass entertainment,” he writes, adding that “a film like CATFISH, one of the most surprising and moving films I saw this year, will never appeal to a mass audience — even if you gave away free tickets that included a raffle chance at dinner with Brad and Angelina. It’s not that the mass audience is made up of cretins; it’s that the vast majority of people don’t go to the movies (or the theater or turn on their TV) to be challenged. Life is challenging enough on a daily basis; entertainment, they believe, should be entertaining. That’s not a judgment; that’s just a fact.”

Then again, writes Fine, “In most ways, the best films I saw at Sundance 2010 shared the same qualities as the best films I see anywhere else: intelligence, wit, heart, emotional honesty and a sense of character and story.” In other words, a good movie is a good movie; it just may not be what audiences are looking for.

The L.A. Times’ Patrick Goldstein, meanwhile, wondered whether the media’s obsession with acquisitions at the festival is “unhealthy,” and whether the press shouldn’t try to focus more on the quality of the films themselves. He put the question to his colleague John Horn, who didn’t think it was a problem.

“You can certainly grade Sundance, like any film festival, on the quality of the movies that played there. And like any year, some movies will be better than others, and some will be so excruciatingly bad you’ll walk out after a few minutes,” Horn writes. “But if you don’t factor sales into the equation, you’re scoring (or reporting on) something in a vacuum — because no audience anywhere can see what you’re talking about … if no one is buying any movies, the festival is a hermetic exercise in navel gazing. Movies are made for audiences to watch, and if the films are not distributed in a meaningful way, they won’t be seen, ever.”

New York Times writer Brooks Barnes, on the other hand, worries about overexposure when it comes to Sundance films. Will all the Google alerts and Twitter feeds and iPhone apps and Sundance outreach efforts — on YouTube, on video on demand, in your local theater — render the festival itself obsolete? With all that so easily accessible, will people cease to feel the need to attend?

Happily, he concludes that “Web downloads and video-on-demand services are great, but they will never replace the powerful experience of sitting in a darkened theater with a group of strangers and then chattering about what you’ve seen at the after-party,” and gives the last word to Kevin Iwashina, a founder of the film sales and production company Parlay Media.

“I think Sundance is smart to expand its footprint because it will help to increase the overall appetite for independent film,” Iwashina tells Barnes. “Attending the festival is a life experience, and there is no substitute.”

And for those of us who didn’t make it out to Park City this year for our own taste of that life experience, well, there’s always next year …