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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 3rd February 2007

Sundance 07

I'd been in Park City less than 24 hours when I spotted the man himself. I was standing on Main Street talking to one of the American television's most distinguished comedy directors when Mr Sundance happened to walk past.

"Would you like to meet him?" asked the director.

"You're kidding, right?"

"Follow me."

Unfortunately, as soon as we'd taken a step towards this Hollywood legend, his mobile phone rang. I was ready to give up at this point, but the director insisted we follow him down the street. Provided we kept a discreet distance, he'd be none the wiser and when he ended his call we'd be in a position to pounce.

Needless to say, I'm not talking about Robert Redford, the man who started the world's largest independent film festival. I'm talking about Harvey Weinstein.

For better or worse, it is Weinstein, not Redford, who embodies the true spirit of Sundance. Back when the festival began in 1981, the definition of an "independent film" was pretty straightforward. It meant a picture that wasn't funded or distributed by one of the big Hollywood studios. Typically, an "independent film" would be a low-budget feature starring non-name actors and which didn't have any big commercial ambitions.

Nowadays, thanks to Weinstein, it's primarily a marketing term, a way of branding a film as edgy and artistic in the hope that it will find favour with upmarket audiences. Take Pulp Fiction, for instance, the most famous "independent film" of the 90s. While it was made by Miramax, a company that was then run by Harvey and his brother, it was actually financed by Disney, which acquired Miramax in 1993.

After the box office success of Pulp Fiction, the other studios decided that they, too, wanted to produce "independent films" and some of the biggest companies in the marketplace today--Working Title, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage--are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the six major studios. Not only do independent features cost less to produce than a typical studio picture, which means that the successful ones are more profitable, they are also more likely to garner awards, thereby reassuring the studio brass that they're not simply in the business to make money.

So where does Sundance fit into this picture? One of its functions is to give these studio-financed, low-budget features the imprimatur of authenticity. It is, after all, the world's leading independent film festival, so what better way of branding your picture "independent" than opening it at Sundance? This year, for instance, several of the movies that had their world premiers at the festival were entirely funded by the big Hollywood studios.

Of course, from a branding point of view, a film is more likely to seem "independent" if it gives the appearance of having been financed by a group of dedicated individuals rather than a major studio--and here, too, Sundance can play a part. Most of the pictures that are unveiled for the first time at the festival don't have a distribution deal in place, but are acquired by a distributor shortly after debuting--typically, by one of the studio-owned independents like Miramax. Indeed, Sundance is crawling with executives from these companies who are purportedly there to make distribution deals. However, it's an open secret in Hollywood that many of the movies that are supposedly picked up at Sundance have, in fact, been pre-financed by the studios who are only pretending to come on board after the film has been made. In this way, not only does the picture in question appear to be genuinely "independent", but it gets the added boost of having been "discovered" at Sundance.

If a small film is properly branded in this way, the rewards can be astronomical. Take last year's big winner at the festival, a movie called Little Miss Sunshine. Fox Searchlight, a wholly-owned subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, acquired the distribution rights to Little Miss Sunshine for $10 million shortly after its Sundance premier--and while there's no evidence that Fox had any involvement in the film before that point, Little Miss Sunshine went on to become one of the most successful pictures of last year. Thanks, in part, to its "independent" feel, it has taken $60 million at the American box office and been garlanded with awards. Last week, it received six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture--Fox's only film to be put forward for this accolade.

At this year's festival, no film looked likely to repeat the success of Little Miss Sunshine--and it's doubtful that Sundance can continue to serve as the Académie Française of independent cinema for much longer. It has become too obviously commercial, with scarcely anyone even bothering to pay lip service to Redford's original ideals. To take just one example, Main Street in Park City was littered with "swag lounges", the name given to the corporate showrooms where various well-known brands--Phillips, Motorola, North Face--hawked their latest wares. The reason they were called "swag lounges" is because if you were sufficiently well known you could enter one of these emporia and help yourself to free booty. The quid pro quo was that the celebrity in question had to pose for the paparazzi as he or she left, their arms laden with swag.

The organisers of Sundance this year hoped to counter such distractions by handing out badges saying "Focus on Film"--and by politely asking the festival's official sponsors not to set up "swag lounges" of their own. But with the biggest celebrity in town being Tara Reid--an actress whose main claim to film is appearing in American Pie--they didn't make much headway. Reid and her entourage must have left Sundance with enough swag to start a department store.

Still, the declining authority of the festival didn't deter Harvey Weinstein from going on a buying spree--and he might well have been in the throes of acquiring a film as the director and I stalked him down the street.

"This could be kind of awkward," said the director. "Is it okay if I say that the only reason I'm bothering him is because you asked me to introduce you?"

"Absolutely not," I said. "That would be really embarrassing."

At that very moment, Harvey ended his call.

"Hey Harvey," said the director, seizing his chance. "Sorry to bother you, but I'm with this friend of mine from England and, you know, he's a huge, huge fan and he literally went down on his knees and begged me to introduce him."

Rather surprisingly, Weinstein was incredibly gracious, shaking my hand, asking me if I'd seen any good films yet and generally giving the impression that I was someone who's opinion mattered to him.

"It's funny," said the director, after we parted ways with the great man. "If it weren't for all the stories from his past, you'd think we'd just met the nicest man in show business."

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