2006 Sundance films represent a return to roots
This past week, 119 films jumped from the ranks of 3,148 to form the lineup for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Sixty-four films were chosen for four competition categories: American Dramatic, American Documentary, World Dramatic and World Documentary. Another 38 films will screen as part of the non-competitive Spectrum, Frontier and Park City at Midnight categories, and 17 will screen in the Premiere category.
"It’s a good lineup," said John Cooper, director of programming with the Sundance Institute. "It’s a lineup more about new talent that about all these films hitting the marketplace."
A 16-year veteran of the Institute’s programming department, Cooper and his programmers, along with Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore, are responsible for composing the Sundance Film Festival slate each year. They picked the 2006 Sundance Film Festival films.
"We have about five programmers," said Cooper. "We go through all the submissions that are sent to us and put together a program that is the best of independent film."
With more than 3,000 films coming into the Institute for 2006, Cooper estimated that he and his programmers watch between 400 and 500 films each.
"It’s a lot," he said. "It’s morning to night, and it goes for the last couple of months (before the selections are released)."
While some might think such a job sitting and watching movies would be fun, Cooper said the number of films makes the task difficult.
"It’s grueling," he said.
The films come to Sundance without a category and without a reputation. The programmers must pick the works based on their quality, innovation and strength of voice, and then place them into the appropriate category within the film festival.
The submissions are not judged by any specific list of characteristics or criteria, rather, they are chosen based on their strength in the eyes of the judges. Cooper said those decisions can be difficult.
"The biggest struggle, the internal struggle, is that I wish I could be more critical," he said. "You have to keep your brain and your heart open to a whole range of voices and perspectives."
Quite often, he said, judges will look past some flaws in a film to recognize its intentions, a new voice or a new form of storytelling. And the programmers do not judge the films on their money-making potential.
"We don’t look at the films to see if they’ll be commercially successful," he said.
Rather, the programmers pick the films to entertain the Sundance Film Festival crowd, and occasionally, to "expand minds."
According to Cooper, the process of choosing the films is simple.
"It’s very old fashioned," he said. "We sit with index cards on boards and argue about them."
The films fit in different places within the film festival according to their strengths and often their degree of refinement.
"It’s always the four competitions that are the core of this festival," said Cooper.
The competition films, he noted, inevitably draw a more critical eye. The non-competitive categories, he noted, are typically better places for a director’s first film, smaller efforts and interesting, but still flawed, works.
The Premier Category films, on the other hand, are completely different. Those films which have distribution deals and are typically made by established directors are submitted by film companies and reviewed by Sundance. They give the festival some extra glamour while offering film companies an avenue to show off their new projects.
This year, Cooper said there are a few reoccurring themes throughout the feature-length films. Some common threads are feature films focusing on the immigrant experience in America, documentaries about the war in Iraq, other features examining the role of religion in people’s lives, and films about music and musicians.
Cooper also noted another trend.
"Documentaries are as huge as they’ve ever been," he said. "We’ve had a lot more submissions this year. They’re a lot better."
Otherwise, Cooper simply said more films are coming to the Institute. This year, the organization fielded approximately 500 more submissions than it did in 2005.
They come because the Sundance Film Festival is the most noted venue for independent film in the country and because now, with digital technology and computer editing programs, a person can become a filmmaker more easily than ever. Cooper said the situation is a double-edged sword. Some new films from new filmmakers are complete revelations, while others are just plain bad.
But those technological innovations have helped facilitate the presence of all the new faces at the film festival. Perhaps the most significant distinguishing factor of the 2006 Film Festival isn’t a specific theme; rather, as Cooper first mentioned, it is innovation.
"I think what’s happening is a trend back to the roots of independent film," said Cooper. "More original stories, more creative ways of telling a story, more away from a Hollywood movie made for cheap."
And that trend, he noted, should lead to a whole new atmosphere at the film festival.
"I think the energy of the festival is going to be kind of fresh," said Cooper. "I think it’s going to be a good energy."
For more information about the Sundance Film Festival, including a full lineup of films visit http://www.sundance.org.
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