Sundance to screen a leaner, quieter festival
Ever since its first success 20 years ago with the bombshell "sex, lies and videotape," the Sundance Film Festival has grown in size, attendance and Hollywood influence -- sometimes at odds with Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford's desire to maintain a festival focused on the filmmakers.
But the lousy economy may do what its famous figurehead has been unable to: rein in Park City's annual movie-industry carnival. And Redford is OK with that.
"I'm not going to be bothered if there's a reduced attendance," Redford said in a recent phone interview. "I'm focused on, 'What are the films being shown? And what do they represent?' "
Nobody will know until after the festival -- which runs Jan. 15 to 25 in Park City -- whether attendance will be down because of the nation's faltering economy. But few are expecting the 45,056 visitors that pumped an estimated $63.3 million into Utah's economy during Sundance 2008.
According to Bill Malone, president and chief executive of the Park City Chamber of Commerce, overnight rentals for the festival's first weekend are down 6 percent from last year -- "nothing dramatic, but obviously a sign of the times," Malone said, adding that he has seen landlords advertising available rooms who weren't doing so last year.
Particularly hard hit, Malone said, are entertainment venues because fewer corporations are renting out party spaces.
"There seem to be, so far, a lot less parties happening than in years past," said Christopher Ryan, owner of the Hollywood marketing and talent management company Oceanside Entertainment, who maintains a top-secret list of Sundance parties for publicists.
Corporations, particularly companies that aren't official Sundance sponsors, are staying out of Park City this year. Ryan noted, for example, that the automaker Chrysler, which at past festivals has had a Main Street lounge for parties, is a no-show in 2009.
"It's been really tough" on the sponsor side, Ryan said. "I had some big fish that were going to sponsor the world, and they all pulled out in the last month or so."
Sponsorship level » Beyond the expected no-shows, Sundance has experienced upheaval closer to home: in the ranks of its official sponsors.
Two of last year's top-tier "presenting sponsors," Volkswagen and Adobe Systems, are gone this year. (Adobe, in a statement, said, "Although our 2009 marketing plans do not include corporate sponsorship of Sundance, we are strong believers in the Festival and are exploring alternative means of engaging with the creative community at the event this year.")
Sundance officials say the overall level of sponsorship is about even with past years. "We knew Volkswagen was going to leave -- that was not news," said Emily Laskin, the Sundance Institute's director of development. "There were sponsors whose terms of three years were up."
Where one sponsor leaves, another often takes its place. For example, Volkswagen's slot was filled this year by Honda. Other new sponsors include Google/YouTube, Brita water filters and Timberland outdoor gear.
"We did see [sponsors] take a little longer to really look at their contracts, think about what they were getting," Laskin said. "Things that might have been more automatic in years past were really thoughtfully vetted. Which is fine with us -- we really stand the test of scrutiny."
Sundance's official sponsors will have a new venue on Park City's Lower Main Street to entertain, said Jill Miller, the institute's general manager.
The site at the Town Lift has been, in past years, party central for "ambush marketers." Jeffrey Best, the L.A. party planner who created the Village at the Lift, is now working for Sundance, Miller said, and has turned the Lift venue into an event site for Sundance's official sponsors.
"Sundance made a really smart move," Ryan said of Best's hire. "They're still going to do the VIP stuff and the parties there. It's now officially sanctioned by the festival."
Nonprofits' woes » Sundance's ticket sales are "on par with last year, which is fantastic news," Miller said, which shows "we've got our core audience [who are] continuing to return to the festival as they do every year."
The downturn in lodging, Miller said, is an indication that "people who come to the festival who aren't necessarily here to see the films, and just like to hang out, we suspect there will be less of them this year."
Sundance is pinching pennies, like any nonprofit, Miller said. At this year's festival, there will be less signage at festival venues, and the pocket schedule won't be published -- patrons are being urged to keep the magazine-sized film guide or go to the Sundance Web site. Miller also touted a videoconferencing system the Institute bought this year, which has reduced the need for travel between Sundance's Park City and Beverly Hills offices.
Most nonprofit organizations have watched their corporate supporters lose money in the stock market -- with some portfolios down 30 or 40 percent, said Geralyn White Dreyfous, a documentary producer and cofounder of the Salt Lake City Film Center.
Filmmakers, particularly documentarians, who rely on nonprofit foundations for support may be forced to go deeper into debt to get their films finished, Dreyfous said.
Dreyfous oversees a fund, Impact Partners, which is helping support four social-issue documentaries at Sundance '09. The fund has 16 investors and is secure for this year, but in this economy, "our big test will be whether these investors renew for next year and whether we bring in any new investors," Dreyfous said.
Some producers have gotten creative to market their films at Sundance. Dreyfous points to "No Impact Man," a documentary about a Manhattan family that takes drastic steps to reduce its carbon footprint. Impact Partners, which is supporting the film, banded with six other environmentally-themed festival movies to throw a joint party.
"We're going to all share the costs for the party," Dreyfous said. The party venue -- the environmentally friendly Swaner EcoCenter in Park City's Redstone development -- was available, Dreyfous said, because other events canceled.
Deal-making » Also a given is that fewer buyers will be shopping in Sundance's movie marketplace.
Several indie distributors are no longer in the game. Last year, Warner Bros. closed three of its "boutique" divisions -- Warner Independent, Picturehouse and New Line. And the Yari Film Group's distribution arm filed for bankruptcy protection. Layoffs at other studios have either happened or are rumored to happen soon. Even the distributors who are flush will be sending smaller entourages to Park City.
"None of us have any idea exactly what is going to happen," said the veteran publicist Mickey Cottrell. "We all know the pockets are not as deep as they have been in the past. We'll just have to see how deep they are."
Sundance may reap a benefit from Hollywood's newfound belt-tightening. "It will be a calmer Sundance, for sure," said longtime publicist Jim Dobson. "The days of throwing away $100,000 for Jay-Z to perform are a thing of the past."
Dobson also points to the notorious "gifting lounges," where greedy celebrities rake in free merchandise, as a trend he hopes is on the decline. "It's the gluttonous showing off that is turning people off," he said.
Instead, Dobson said, stars are coming to Park City to publicize charities, or even -- gasp! -- support their films. "Celebrities who are very passionate about their films are getting themselves to Sundance and paying their own way -- and that's unheard of in my career," Dobson said.
Cottrell suggested one absence that would mark a major change. "I would certainly be grateful if I did not see a stretch limo in Park City this year," the publicist lamented. "That's one of the most atrocious sights, when you see that awful monster trying to make one of those tiny turns. Can't we get back to basics that this festival was founded on?"
That's Redford's hope. "What might be a positive is that if there is less hoo-ha, less of a circus atmosphere," Redford said, "there will be more tendency to focus on what it is that we're really about, which is the independent filmmakers and the quality of the work."
Correction:The independent film distributor ThinkFilm has not shut down, contrary to the original online version of this story. It recently closed its New York offices, but opened new offices in Los Angeles.
$63,375,579: Total economic activity
45,056: Total attendance (14,373 Utah residents, and 31,719 non-Utahns).
6 days: Average length of a festival attendee's visit
$1,406.61: Average amount spent by a festival attendee
37 percent: Portion of attendees who ski while in Utah
79 percent: Portion of attendees who work outside the movie industry
80 percent: Portion of attendees who say they would return to Park City outside of the festival
Source: Sundance Institute