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Sundance Film Festival final wrap

The 2008 edition of the Sundance Film Festival is now history and a few assessments are now in order. First of all, griping aside, the Festival's venue, a ski resort high in the Wasatch Mountains, is severly limited in many respects. Not only is traffic a nightmare, accomodations scarce and ridiculously overpriced, and transportation between screening theaters rickety at best, the Festival lacks any credible center (other than a hotel lobby). With more than 50,000 visitors crowding into the hamlet of Park City for a frenzied ten day period, the town is literally bursting at its seams. Restaurants are noisy and crowded. Parties are impossibly dense, with more people standing on the sidewalk jostling to get in than can ever be accomodated. Meetings are constantly being thrown off course because it is literally impossible to reach your destination in a timely manner (unless one takes very costly taxis, and even then, they become stuck in a marass of traffic jams).

My radical solution? Either move the Festival to a larger location (Salt Lake City, Los Angeles) or shift it to a different (and more accomodating) time of the year, like mid-summer. Of course, neither of these solutions will be implemented any time soon. With Robert Redford's influence over the proceedings akin to the powers of the Wizard of Oz, this wizard of Utah is not keen to move the Festival away from its mountaintop mainstay. Changing Festival dates is equally daunting, since the Festival calendar is so impossibly crowded and Sundance's winter position becomes a fixed point in a constellation that includes Toronto in September and Cannes in May (although many may be surprised to learn that years ago Cannes was in September and Toronto was in the late spring).

So, I guess we just have to grin and bear it......the sub-zero temperatures, the crowds, the traffic, the too-small-for-the-demand screening venues. I have even gotten used to the swag contingent, with expensive perfumes, electronic goodies and snowbunny boots being this year's swag du jour. The sponsor and corporate hype seems to have lessened, if not in number than in impact. It no longer feels all that unique and my eyeballing of it saw the Main Street shops less than buzzing. Free stuff is not the status symbol it once was.

From an industry point of view, the Festival is still a must on the film calendar, not only to become aware of the new films coming down the pike, but to see and be seen. A buying frenzy never quite materialised this year, although a record sale was set. The purchase of HAMLET 2 almost tied the record price paid two years ago for LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. But the other pickups that peppered the Festival did not break any records and were rather modest in comparison with previous years. All told, more people described this year's film batch as underwhelming, with too many unfunny comedies and dreary dramas on tap that did not generate distributor attention or critical support. It has been an unwelcome but necessary return to reality, after a streak of impulsive film buys, followed by disasterous box office results months later.

So, that brings us back full circle to the films themselves. As usual, documentaries were consistently sharper than their feature film cousins, and the increased profile of world cinema selections brought with it some highly accomplished films that will continue to make a splash on the international film festival circuit. Rather impressively, Sundance has now cornered the market on World and International Premieres (exceeding even Toronto in this respect). With so many titles arriving directly from their respective labs, literally still wet from post-production, the "must see" cache remains one of Sundance's most intriguing sleights-of-hand (of course, once the film screens, the cat is literally let out of the bag to a volley of critical assessment and instant commercial analysis).

So, what to make of a Festival that flew a little bit under the radar this year? Perhaps that old-fashioned idea of a festival being a place of discovery of new talents (if not necessarily new treasures) is the sentiment most adhered to by attendees. An appreciation of films that will never make a dime allows for a receptivity to innovation, daring and experimentation that does not consider a film's commercial potential its only tangible attribute. Enough to have been entertained, challenged, moved and motivated........and even a little changed. Not bad for a 100-year-old artform that is still evolving. Kudos, Sundance programmers, for not losing sight of the real gold in them thar hills.

Sandy Mandelberger, Sundance FF Editor on

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