Basking in the Sundance


When ‘Reservoir Dogs’ came out in 1992 – and this is before anyone knew who Quentin Tarantino was – it crashed in the US box office like a ‘Led Zeppelin.’

This is despite being developed in the basements of the Sundance institute’s filmmaking workshops AND winning the grand jury prize. However, we all know now who Tarantino is, don’t we? Another similar, more recent tale is of Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Last years’ winner was also developed in the black-magic labs of Sundance. It garnered more than 130 (yes, 130!) prizes and nominations worldwide, including Sundance’s own grand jury prize. And… You guessed it! Just like Reservoir Dogs, its box office mojo in the US did not even cover the production costs. So what’s the point here?


‘Where Ideas Connect!’
Back in the late 1970’s, Californian born film star and French knight Robert Redford, established in Park City, Utah ‘Where Ideas Connect!’ a new film festival with a mission that counters everything Redford unwillingly represents. The Hollywood mega-star set out to turn the tides on the American film industry, so enslaved to the studios and their star system. In a suitably chivalrous act, Redford swore to expose independent film and theater artists, and help them, and their audiences develop, through training and competition. Ironically he named the institute after one of the character’s he played in Hollywood’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Surely you can guess which one?

In the early 1980’s, the institute symbolically took over from the US Film Festival and re-branded it as Sundance. Sundance quickly evolved into one of the most exciting of any major film festival in the world, showcasing those American voices unrepresented by the big studios, and usually quite critical of the American society. Nowadays Sundance still separates its awards to American and Worldwide prizes, maintaining the support for pioneering American independent filmmakers. It also boasts a great number of exceptionally professional workshops that pick up on filmmakers with incredible stories and helps them bring their stories and styles to the silver screen. The Sundance brand brings with it an entrepreneurial, pioneering, and independent spirit that can be rivaled only by the image of Redford in a cowboy hat.

In 2011, Sundance launched their London edition that dovetails the American installment by some 3 months. By creating a European edition Redford confessed he hopes to spread independent American voices across the Atlantic, and support those which are seldom heard over the noise of mainstream export from the United States. With directors like Tarantino, Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) and Catherine Harwicke (Thirteen) on their list of past winners, all of which were catapulted into a stellar career in film, it’s probably fair to say that Sundance has had a huge impact on the American film landscape. It brought artists to the surface that would have had no chance competing with the money wielding film giants from the west coast, gave them an enormous leg up and a worldwide stage upon which to showcase their stuff. The aforementioned Harwicke, for example, was a production designer before she made her successful debut with Thirteen, one of my all-time favourite films. It’s a bit of a shame though when five years later she directed the first of the Twilight trilogy following by Red Riding Hood, a studio werewolf movie. A bit sad I know; she went totally commercial, huh? Hopefully she’ll find her way back to the innovative, daring ways that made her so big!

Sundance is due to announce the films in competition for the 30th edition, in the next few days. The 30th edition will take place in January 2014.

In my next installation, I will explore the ridiculous number of festivals and competitions out there. Remember how many prizes and nominations did Beasts of the Southern Wild collect?

Film Festivals – Who Needs Them? Coming next!

  1. Avatar of Andy Bachman
    Andy Bachman says

    Welcome and thank you for sharing this.
    As a movie buff, I’ll be checking out your articles on a regular basis.

  2. Avatar of Paula Boer
    Paula Boer says

    Welcome, Roi! I have always been a huge fan of Robert Redford. Knowing that he cares about the little people makes him all the more of a hero in my eyes. Thank you for sharing this insight into an industry that hides the pain and slog behind a glamour facade.

  3. Avatar of Roi Frey
    Roi Frey says

    Thanks everyone for the warm welcome.
    There is indeed so much more to this industry than meets the eye.
    I’ll be here on a regular basis so hopefully you guys join me for this magical journey!

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